Baby Teeth Zoje Stage, 2018. Rating 4/5
A picture-perfect family reveals evil at its core: an icily intelligent seven-year-old who wants her mother gone. One way or another.
The Jensens live an upscale life in urban Pittsburgh. Alex is a highly sought-after architect, and his wife Suzette, is a talented artist and interior designer. Their young daughter, Hanna, seems perfect too, except that she has chosen not to speak, and no amount of testing reveals why. She communicates nonverbally, using sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. Hanna and her father are a mutual adoration society of two. In Alex’s eyes, Hanna can do no wrong. In Hanna’s eyes, only Suzette stands between her and a perfect life with Alex, whom she intends to marry when she gets older. Suzette is a “bad mommy.”
Suzette has been homeschooling Hanna because certain…incidents…resulted in her explusion from other schools. Suzette is at the end of her rope. Before Hanna, Alex and Suzette were the stars in each other’s worlds. Now, Suzette misses her freedom, her creativity-—and Alex. She laments that she doesn’t seem to have Hanna’s love, or really any bond with her daughter. Suzette’s own dysfunctional relationship with her mother may have something to do with her emotional distance from Hanna. Or, it could just be the fact that Hanna is a murderous psychopath.
Hanna plots to make Suzette go away. She gaslights her mother, speaking—only to Suzette—in the persona of a French witch who was burned at the stake. (Hanna, unbeknownst to her parents, has mad Internet skills). Alex begins to doubt Suzette’s stability when she tells him of some of Hanna’s malicious exploits. Suzette’s stance is further compromised by her low self-esteem and her ever-present fear of her Crohn’s disease. When Hanna (mostly) fails to drive a wedge between Suzette and Alex, Hanna ramps up her efforts and plots to make Suzette go away permanently.
Baby Teeth is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel. Alternating perspectives between Hanna and Suzette works to build tension. But, while I enjoyed hearing from both adversarial females, Hanna’s point of view is much more engaging, in an deliciously evil way. Hanna is an imaginative, creative, manipulative little terror. I was intrigued to see how her vicious machinations would unfold. Unfortunately, the book bogs down a bit with Suzette’s repetitive complaints and guilty self-recriminations. It takes a lot for Suzette to realize the threat her daughter poses and to react. Frankly, I wanted more of an edge. More psychological terror. That said, Baby Teeth did leave me thinking about it for a long time after I finished reading: the sign of a good read.