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review 2018-09-17 17:46
Not For Everyone
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, has received very polarized reviews from both readers and critics.  The novel tells the story of a young family struggling to parent a child who seems to be extremely disturbed, if not downright evil.  As the book opens, 9-year-old Hanna is receiving an MRI, a last-ditch attempt by her parents to see if her mutism has a physiological basis.  The news is received with both relief and dismay by her mother, Suzette, who was hoping that her daughter would be able to receive a clear diagnosis and mode of treatment. When it appears that Hanna’s complete lack of verbal or written communication is selective, it is up to Suzette to examine her own contribution to her child’s condition.  The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Suzette and Hanna, and the reader is privy to the fact that Hanna harbors some violent designs against her mother. Suzette is desperate to provide her daughter with everything she was deprived of as a child and remains obsessed with appearances, even as her fears and resentments grow. As Hanna’s attacks on Suzette escalate, Suzette attempts to convince her husband that something is seriously wrong with the girl.  She even starts to retaliate against Hanna, increasingly treating her like an adult nemesis. Alex (the stereotypical clueless father) is reluctant to believe that Hanna is anything but the sweet little girl that he has witnessed. As he coddles and spoils her, her mother sneers and taunts her.  Hanna begins to plot a way to “remove” Suzette from their family so she can be alone with Alex.  Since the book has a small cast of characters, Stage creates a claustrophobic feeling that adds to the foreboding tone. Is Hanna’s behavior a result of a congenital psychological disorder, or caused by her parent’s failed efforts at raising her?  Do we erroneously assume that love is deserved unconditionally between parents and children and vice versa? There really is no sympathetic character for the reader to side with in the book, and the result can be discomforting. Much of the controversy about Baby Teeth involves the perceived sexualization of a child, presented in an excessive and overt manner.  Stage was obviously very inspired by the Freudian concept of the Oedipal Complex when composing this novel. Those readers put off by the descriptions of this element should know that Hanna’s drive is presented as more of a bid for her father’s absolute attention rather than a literal desire for consummation.  This book is not for everyone, and most readers will know pretty quickly if Baby Teeth is a selection they can tolerate or would choose to add to their DNF pile.

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review 2018-08-18 17:18
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

A “mute” 7 year old and the first time she speaks is to the mother she hates. An interesting idea and genuinely creepy in parts. Is this a horror or domestic drama? Hard to say as it is often both. Not an easy read at all and often disturbing especially some of the scenarios and quite often violent. Hanna seems much older than 7 with her reasoning and what she gets up to. Alex is quite happy going off to work whilst his wife Suzette struggles with their daughter every day. I liked this book, I think, but certainly not all of it!

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review 2018-08-12 14:35
Where does evil reside?
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage, author; Gabra Zackman, narrator
This is an incredibly creative psychodrama interpreted and read well by the narrator who expresses the thoughts and ideas of Suzette and Hanna very authentically so that their true personalities come through.
Although it has been described in some quarters as a book about relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and the competitive relationship of those parents with their children, and also about parenting skills, for me it was about the inability of our society to recognize mental illness and the possibility that it can reside in very young children. We want to think of our children as innocent canvases that we lay paint on in order to create either geniuses or monsters or something in between. Actually, the evil may not lie with the parents’ capabilities, but more likely within the DNA of the child who may be born with certain innate tendencies.
Although this book has sometimes been compared to a combination of books, like Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and We Have to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, I am of a generation that remembers another book, as well. For me, it was more likely a twin to The Bad Seed, written by William March and published in 1982. Eventually, it became a movie, as well.
Suzette has Crohn’s disease. She has had a difficult childhood and a dysfunctional home life. When she meets and falls in love with Alex, it fulfills her wildest dreams of happiness, but then, they have a child.
Alex is a patient and loving parent. Although he is presented with many assessments concerning the aberrational behavior of his child, he ignores the signs of abnormality, even though his wife and school officials have witnessed them. He is determined to explain all of the behavioral issues away and ascribe them to the normal way exceptionally bright children mature. He believes Hanna will outgrow all of her inabilities to socialize properly and even learn to speak someday.
Hanna is on some dysfunctional spectrum, but it is difficult to determine which one. She is mute. She communicates with various behavior patterns like pointing or repetitively banging her hands or making guttural noises at high pitch when throwing a tantrum. She even barks like a dog, snarling and making grotesque faces when she wants to intentionally frighten someone. Her behavior is abnormal. This child, Hanna, would be a true trial for any parent, but for parents in denial because of their own emotional deficiencies, dealing with a dysfunctional child can become impossible.
Suzette’s mother neglected her. She learned no parenting skills. Because of this, she was insecure in her own skill as a parent. Also, she suffered with a disease that caused her distress and embarrassment. She knows what it is like to suffer alone. She knows what it is like when real issues are unattended to and ignored by the one you love. She worried that she, too, would be a bad parent, like her mother, unable to care for her child properly or resolve issues when mishaps occurred; she often blamed herself, believing that it was her ignorance of child raising skills that was the cause of Hanna’s problems. She feared blame. No matter how dreadful or how common sense should have pointed to another catalyst for the behavior problems, she questioned herself.
Hanna adored her father too much and competed for his love. Her need for her father’s attention turned her against Suzette. She viewed her mother as her rival. When her anger and frustration become too much for her to handle, she created an imaginary friend. This friend took on the personality of a dead witch. Because Hanna was unusually gifted intellectually, although developmentally arrested emotionally, her behavior grew worse and her actions became dangerous as she began devising diabolical plans to eliminate her mother from her father’s life so that she could become the center of his attention. Although she often blamed the imaginary friend, she too was an active accomplice. She never showed her demonic behavior to her father, which helped to keep him in the dark, questioning those who condemned her behavior.
Hanna is a scary child. Suzette is emotionally dysfunctional. Alex is in denial. This combination of personalities created a monster that they refused to recognize, at first, and then, when they finally did, they had to deal with enormous consequences.
The book raises many questions. Are there evil children? Are they created or born? Can they be helped? Are parents responsible for the inappropriate behavior of their children, even when it is bizarre? Do children learn by example? Can children feel true jealousy? Are some parents jealous of their children? Do children have a positive or negative affect on a marriage? Does life have to change after the birth of a child? Can a couple maintain their privacy and love with a child in the picture? Did living with Crohn’s disease, an illness that is incurable and difficult to control help Suzette understand that Hanna’s mental illness was probably on the same level, incurable and difficult to control? Would she ever truly feel safe if Hanna was released or would she always fear that she was going to plan to hurt her? There is no definitive way to determine if a mental illness has been arrested or cured. Could it recur in the same way her Crohn’s disease might someday return?
This book would definitely make for a good movie, and it feels like the ending set it up for a second book to follow.

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review 2018-07-25 19:05
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

This has got to be one of the creepiest books that I have ever read. The idea that a child can think like this and do these things just blew me away. There were several times that I had to just put the book down and get away from it from a few minutes. It seriously affected me mentally.

However, there is no way that I will ever forget this book. It's one that will stay with me for a very long time. While the subject matter is pretty much on the garish side, it was a good read.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.

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review 2018-07-17 18:34
’Baby Teeth’ has a lot of bite and is not so sweet BUT it’s ‘un-put-down-able’
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

This amazingly creepy story from debut author Zoje Stage has got a lot of bite. The ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ complex takes center stage as Hanna, a seven-year old (supposedly) mute girl plays nice-nice in her father Alex’s company, but when she is the company of her mother Suzette, she just about unleashes horns on her head and a devil’s tail.


I’m exaggerating a little bit: there are no supernatural horns or tails although it’s way to easy to imagine them on this devil child that Zoje has so well-written for this novel. And somehow Hanna only manages to talk, now suddenly in French, just in her mom’s company, never so her dad can hear.


For years, Suzette has had to sacrifice her career by staying at home to homeschool Hanna, as she has been thrown out of preschools for bizarre and nasty behavior, but it’s behavior that her parents felt she would grow out of, and that once she was school-age, she could be handled better by an elementary school. Suzette also struggles with Crohn’s disease, which often keeps her bedridden and very ill, but it’s something that Hanna only has so much patience for but luckily her husband Alex has been sensitive to over the years.
Hanna persists in showing only one side to her father, who is Swedish to a fault, following Swedish holidays and traditions, which is something Hanna loves, including the special names Alex gives her, like Lilla Gumman, and she delights in little things like jumping in this lap and bedtime stories, shows of affection she reserves only for her father.
Alex and Suzette have not ignored Hanna’s lack of speech and antisocial behavior over the years though; they’ve taken her to specialists and had tests done, MRIs and other scans but there are no medical reasons for these behaviors. The answers start to become clearer especially to Suzette, as the behaviors become more pronounced; she questions herself, her parenting, whether Hanna is possessed, but she starts to realize this is just Hanna.


Reading Hanna’s side of it (as the novel goes -effectively - back and forth between what is going on for Hanna and Suzette, as if they are making an argument for their case) is just so incredibly disturbing. As she makes ‘plans’ for things she is about to do, and as she reasons ‘why she should’ do things, you’re allowed to see inside a very sad and twisted mind. As the book progresses so does her negativity towards her mother, and her need to push her mom out of the way to get closer to her father becomes greater.


The methods she does it by made me literally gasp out loud and sent my own child running (with questions for me), so that’s a good sign for me when it comes to a book.
In terms of how Suzette and Alex were able to handle Hanna: I will say that if you’re not a parent, you may have the view that it would have been easy to think ‘call the police’, or do certain other drastic things at times, but once you’re a parent, your perspective changes. You try everything else first. You want to try and help your child and do what you can, or you don’t believe they’re doing these behaviors. Your love for your child makes you run through all other avenues of help first, or in Alex’s case, stay in denial or in oblivion.


For many readers, this book may have gone too far; I know of many reviewers who passed on it because of the subject material, and it wasn’t for them. But it was totally right for me. I had been waiting for a book to be this daring for a while, and if it turns some people away, then you’ve at least elicited a visceral reaction to your work, whatever it is. In this case, it was because it was something that was going to make them feel uncomfortable or scared. I’d read that some people also got the wrong idea about the book, that it contained sexual abuse: it’s a shame people jump to conclusions before they actually have any real information.
Even if I didn’t know that the author Zoje used to work in film (as I also did) I probably could’ve guessed, as this would hold up so incredibly well as a movie; I had so many scenes in my head when I was reading this! Pure magic for the camera. Especially with the right Hanna.
The characters were so fascinating, and well-written, and I loved all the little bits about Sweden, Zoje did a fine job making these characters unique, especially for a thriller in a crowded genre. But then again, the whole book is unique, right down to the crushed lollipop on the front of the book.


And since at the center of this book is the ‘Daddy’s Little Girl/Electra’ complex, I found this fascinating. I don’t think I’ve seen a book personally written about this to this degree. It made Alex so blind to his daughter’s behavior, although it also made me question whether the ending was realistic.
The ending did kind of peter out a bit but I was satisfied with it; overall the book was such a page-turner, and kept me so enthralled, it was thoroughly ‘unputdownable’. I want more of this from Zoje!


*Warning: it might make some people question whether they want a ‘Little Girl to spoil’ after reading.

**Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for my early copy! 

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