Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro
When October comes, I’m always caught off guard by how quickly summer has gone. Afternoons at the beach or by the lake already feel distant. For parents especially, summer vanishes in the transition of back to school—but as the summers pass, you come to miss the time of children in summer even more. By that I mean the days when they’re little, sand-covered, sticky with popsicle, when they crawl into your lap wrapped in a beach towel. Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, captures that sense of fleeting summer pleasure, along with the pleasures and the challenges of navigating parenthood. On a Labor Day weekend, five members of a hip Brooklyn playgroup and their families arrange to spend the last days of summer in a beach house on Long Island Sound, a collage of personalities effectively heightened by the novel’s careful arrangement of temporal and physical space.
There is Nicole, mother of almost-four Wyatt, and the weekend’s organizer, who battles obsessive behavior, and harbors secrets—for one, that she’s arranged this weekend at her parents’ beach house without their knowledge. Rip, the group’s lone father, is a stay-at-home dad to four year-old Hank, and hopes for a second child though his wife Grace, a corporate manager, may not. Leigh, mom to infant daughter, Charlotte, three months, also has a son, Chase, four, who suffers from an unnamed brain-based behavioral disorder. She longs to have another child, and has embezzled cash from her school’s fundraiser to pay for yet another in vitro fertilization. There is Allie, a successful artist and her wife, Susanna, her former student, mothers to four year-old twins Levi and Dash, and with Susanna’s pregnancy, expecting a third child. Finally, Tiffany, and her fiancé, Michael, arrive with Tiffany’s nearly four year-old daughter she’s still breast feeding, Harper. Among the group, Tiffany is the outsider, with a past of poverty and hard circumstance, whose strident views on childrearing and organic food pale alongside her social climbing fervor. The conscience of this group is Tenzin, Leigh’s Tibetan nanny, a woman the group refers to as the “Tibetan Mary Poppins,” for the magically calming effects she has upon her charges.
We grow to know each of these characters through the chapters that rotate among different narrators. Their anxieties, financial woes, their struggles and desires often run in conflict, heightened by the strictures that come with parenting young children. It’s this pressure that drives the novel, and in the course of the weekend, the characters come to see their lives differently.
Among the pleasures of Cutting Teeth are Fierro’s gems of parenting reality. As when Rip, the perennial mommy outsider observes, “The mommies expected the kids to have the control of adults. No one wants to be friends with a nose-picker. Cookies are for good boys only. Why would you want a child to feel shame when you knew adult life was chock-full of it?” Allie, the successful artist, grapples with the changes that have come over Susannah, once the fiery young art student, who seems now settled happily in motherhood.
The lens moves in close on the children too. On the beach, a little girl in the distance is a “speck of pale skin topped with flame red, like a birthday candle.” There is the brashness of a girl at four, bossing the boys. The shyness of a child who knows he’s different. The turns of cruel behavior and camaraderie. Fierro’s prose is beautifully crafted. Her sentences are assembled with care, yet unfold with clarity and insight. The care shows us everything from the secret to the mundane:
“The day had been filled with warnings, Nicole thought, and it was only midafternoon. A chorus of don’t and watch-out! As the mommies’ and daddies’ exhaustion had surged, the routine parental reprimands had morphed into ominous threats and prophecies.”
The tensions between the characters come to a head in a near-disastrous incident, though the novel doesn’t aim to neatly wrap up the questions it raises. The title is based on a quote by Peter Ustinov, “Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth,” a time when parents might grapple with their own self-hood as their children’s young lives are forming too. From my own experience as a parent, this is all too clear. You don’t quite see it at the time, but the day-to-day sameness is its own state of flux. The worries and complications that seem unending change in a flash.