What Big Teeth
(FSG Books for Young Readers, 2021)
The Gothic genre has always created a home for nonbinary misfits—shapeshifters who transcend limitations of the scripted body, ageless vampires down to suck whatever fleshly element comes their way, and a whole panoply of creatures who defy boundaries imposed on their being. As a young reader wanting to expand and explore the perimeters of my own shape, I sought refuge in this world of terror and so I felt a familiar stride alongside Eleanor Zarrin, the seemingly normal (or at least human-ish) teen protagonist in Rose Szabo’s young adult debut, What Big Teeth, as she seeks refuge in a household of not always benign monsters.
After she’s involved in a violent incident, Eleanor flees Saint Brigid’s boarding school and heads straight back to her ancestral home off the coast of Maine, where she hopes to reunite with the monstrous family she only vaguely remembers, and now fears.
If the Addams Family moved into Hill House one could begin to imagine the gothic fantasy from which Eleanor was bred. But it has been eight years since she’s seen or spoken to any of them. She doesn’t quite remember her half-human, half-sea-thing mother who spends most of the time in a wash bin, gently tending to her freshly wetted polyps; or her transmogrifying werewolf relatives who are often on the verge of ripping each other’s throats out; or even the witchy paternal grandmother who sent her away in the first place. While it may seem paradoxical to seek protection within a group that could harm you—even Eleanor admits, “to want something so badly and also be so afraid” is “a dangerous combination”—sometimes the desire for love and acceptance outweighs fear. Besides, it is often better to deal with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t, especially when that devil may reside within you.
Still reeling from her relative’s abandonment, wondering why they never replied to any letters or brought her home for the holidays, Eleanor seeks answers for why she was turned away while still desperately trying to assimilate. She is met with a strangely anticipated welcome home as her paternal grandmother “saw” her return in the cards, yet no one is quite sure why she is there (she’s even a bit foggy on the matter). Eventually she becomes reaccustomed—remembering moments growing up in the gothic manse; finding warmth in Arthur, a mysterious, vampiric, scarecrow-like figure everyone seems to use as their plaything; and reconnecting with Luma, her wolven sister and former best friend. But as soon as she finds her footing, a sudden death transpires forcing her to take a lead role in the family’s affairs.
Tasked with the overwhelming burden of keeping the family together: making sure they don’t kill each other or become a target of the town while also maintaining their once prosperous extracts business, Eleanor calls upon her maternal French grandmother (Grandmere) for help. But as soon as the well-organized, lavender-scented woman arrives, her presence causes an immediate rift within the house. When chaos erupts, Eleanor is forced to face her own inner darkness in order to protect the monsters she loves.
A search for the self is at the forefront of this twisted coming-of-age story, as everyone insists on telling Eleanor who or what she truly is inside. Her journey is not only in discovering who she is, but also the transformation she must make in order to battle the destructive outside forces encroaching upon her family.
Like memory, much of the tale is cloaked in shadow with long passages containing dreams or dream-like sequences and murky flashbacks from various points of view. But it’s not all dark. The story is often injected with a brilliant, wonderland-like atmosphere as we see Eleanor singing the drakondia plants back to life as they "bob and sway" behind her. Some of the more beautiful scenes are of Eleanor diving clothesless off a cliff into fierce waters, swimming toward her true self.
At times, extraneous information can weigh down the pace of the story, but overall What Big Teeth is a fun and enticing read with many intriguing questions driving the plot forward—though some of the answers seem confused or never quite resolved. It can be argued whether lengthy descriptions hinder or help young readers—as a young person, I found value in reading well-built worlds—but Szabo’s descriptions do lean toward lengthy. There is so much love contained within their details (who could forget an aunt who divines by sinking her hands inside the guts of a vulture) that it is easy to overlook minor bumps for a writer who really knows the charming and imaginative world they created, one who provides the kind of lasting visuals readers of all ages crave.