Mother and daughter wage a chilling war in Zoje Stage’s ‘Baby Teeth’

Title: Baby Teeth
Author: Zoje Stage
Genre: Psychological Suspense
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Length: 363 pages
Available: 17 July 2018


“Baby Hanna had simple, intuitive needs. Girl Hanna was a box within a box, each layer wrapped in a bow that was really a trickster’s knot.”

9781250170750The tense relationships between mothers and daughters are not uncommon in books focused on female characters. However, in Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage takes the tension and blows it into a full-on war between 7-year-old Hanna and her mother, Suzette.

Suzette is married to the perfect husband, a Swedish-transplant who is one of Pittsburgh’s most successful architects. He believes he’s married to the perfect woman and has the perfect daughter. To him, little Hanna is nothing but darling and sweet and kind. But for Suzette, Hanna is anything but.

For seven years, Suzette has put her promising interior design career on hold to raise her daughter and deal with her constantly-worsening Crohn’s disease. But when Hanna still won’t talk, with no medical reason why, Suzette is beginning to lose patience spending all day catering to her daughter. After all, since Hanna keeps getting kicked out of any school Suzette tries to enroll her in, Suzette has also taken on the burden of homeschooling. Meanwhile, her husband is in denial that there may be something more going on with Hanna  — a deeper, darker reason why she keeps getting expelled from schools.

“[Hanna] knew what adults liked and didn’t like: rabbit-like girls who kept still and never raised their voice were good; dragon-like girls who roared and stomped and flew and generated their own fire were bad.”

When Suzette gets her husband to agree to send Hanna to a school specifically for children with special needs, Hanna’s thrown off. When she acts out at this school, unlike her previous ones, they don’t expel her. Instead, they work with her on finding ways to make her happy and comfortable in an environment outside her home. Feeling defeated, Hanna ups her game — not only against her new school (who, according to Hanna, is full of morons) but her mother, too. A mother who, with each chapter, is weighed down further with the guilt of not knowing where she went wrong with raising her child.

For me, what sets Baby Teeth apart from the other mother/child psychological thrillers I’ve read so far this year is that the story is contained to this family unit. Stage taps into the stay at home versus career mom struggle without having to introduce outside characters for Suzette to be envious of. This spoke volumes about the relationship Suzette and her husband, Alex, had before they had Hanna. They were a team — a partnership — in business and in their personal life. So while the main conflict is between Hanna and Suzette, we see the issues Hanna causes between Suzette and her husband. Again, this is where Stage surprised me: Alex came to the realization that something was wrong with his family, and his marriage, on his own and this conflict was resolved through therapy and better, more open communication between Alex and Suzette.

Told in alternating points of view between guilt-ridden, terrified Suzette and whimsical but haunting Hanna, the cold war between mother and daughter builds to an explosive ending that I didn’t see coming.

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