Julia Fierro’s “Cutting Teeth’’ is hardly an advertisement for the joys of parenting, but it is also far from a cautionary tale. The debut novel by the founder of the successful Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop presents a highly readable, thought-provoking, and brutally honest study of the struggles and joys of raising children in ultra-hip, fertility procedure-savvy, and family-friendly Brooklyn, N.Y.
The heart of the narrative involves a carefully planned “parents and kids” weekend for four families at a Long Island beach house over Labor Day weekend. As the novel progresses, tensions — the sources of which will be easily recognized by any parent — rise and rise, finally spilling long-kept secrets, splitting marriages, and in some cases, shaking mental stability.
The book’s multiple narrators, who take turns in separate brief chapters, are stressed out in ways that only modern upper-middle-class parents can be. Deeply maternal and sensitive Leigh has embezzled money for in vitro fertilization that results in a second chance at parenthood after her first child is diagnosed with “global delays,” a reality that irreparably strains her marriage. “[N]o amount of work or money could fix the broken neurology in her son’s head.”
Stay-at-home dad Rip, a “[d]iaper-changer, boo-boo kisser, nose-wiper, playground pal,” euphorically embraces his status as honorary mommy while pressuring his career-focused wife to have another child.
Nicole is a novelist with obsessive compulsive disorder who is actively preparing for the end of the world —
Allie, slightly reluctant mom, struggles to accept the fact that her partner, Susanna, the ambitious art student she seduced and photographed years ago, has become a mother of twins with another child on the way. “Two in vitro trials equaled a trip around the world, where, Allie imagined, they might have visited the art they’d worshiped in the years before the boys were born.”
Sultry, buxom Tiffany, who started on the wrong side of the tracks and has risen through the ranks of the Brooklyn mommy social circle, mastering the “sancti-mommies” lingo and playgroup rules, has a surprising dark side that is revealed by the time the weekend draws to a close.
Tenzin, a beloved nanny shared by several of the moms, is estranged from her own children in India and emerges as the most keen-eyed observer of the group. “The mommies lived in the future, Tenzin thought. Ever after. Where they imagined they would have all they wanted. How could they when they wanted more and more?” It’s a question readers may find themselves asking of Fierro’s characters, although they are no less likable as a result.
Fierro, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a deeply literary writer. “Cutting Teeth’’ sings with beautiful sentences, masterfully crafted scenes, and a deeply imagined inner life for each of her characters. Although at times the characters’ back stories threaten to overwhelm the forward propulsive movement of the book and the novel’s final and nearly tragic event feels a bit forced, readers will understand that they’re in the hands of a fine writer deeply attuned to craft.
“Cutting Teeth’’ offers a fresh perspective on the journey of parenting that is at once modern and timeless: There are no easy solutions or formulas for happiness here, just the reality that the care and feeding and great responsibility of raising a human being is complicated, love-struck, deeply sad, and also capable of providing emotional rewards that no other experience can.
Emily Rapp is the author of “The Still Point of the Turning World’’ and “Poster Child.’’ She teaches creative writing in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program.