Preview of one of the year's most hyped debuts
We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen. Interested?
That might be the best way to describe Zoje Stage’s highly anticipated debut novel, Baby Teeth, which explores the volatile, deteriorating relationship between a stay-at-home mom, Suzette, and her mischievous mute daughter, Hanna. Hanna is not exactly well-behaved: She intentionally cuts her mom’s hair, calls her weak and stupid, and feeds paint to a schoolmate, among other antics.
Baby Teeth is a twisty, delirious read that will constantly question your sympathies for the two characters as their bond continues to crumble. A former screenwriter, Stage brings a cinematic aesthetic to the novel — it’s no wonder that the books it calls to mind have all been adapted into popular films.
EW can exclusively reveal a chilling excerpt from the book below. You can also check out a trailer for the book above and pre-order Baby Teeth ahead of its July 17 release here.
Excerpt from Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage
Sometimes she wasn’t sure if she remembered it exactly right. When people asked her how old she was she was still only holding up two fingers, but the leaves were starting to change so she was probably almost three. So the memory was more or less right, and she knew what Mommy meant even then, when she was two, not-yet-three, because she saw Mommy crumbling. And heard in the silences all of Mommy’s regret.
Lunch. Must have been a weekend, because Daddy was around somewhere. But only she and Mommy were at the table. Mommy used her favorite plate, the one with three little sections with a fox, a squirrel, and a rabbit. Little bits of colorful food were in each section. Strawberry slices and grapes cut in half; yellow and orange cubes of cheese; teeny tiny carrots and crunchy sugar snap peas. Stuff she still liked to nibble on.
The only thing she couldn’t remember is why she didn’t feel like eating.
Mommy sat with her, nibbling a sandwich. She remembered Mommy kept gazing at her, but her eyes looked off, blank like the ones in the dead fish she’d seen at the deli. Hanna wasn’t sure if Mommy was really in there, so she threw a carrot at her.
She blinked. “Hey. No throwing. Eat your lunch.”
Mommy hunched back down, blowing out her cheeks. She went still. As Hanna watched, sometimes Mommy forgot to keep chewing and the sandwich looked like it was about to fall out of her hand. Hanna didn’t like it. Was Mommy dying, like a toy that needed to be wound up? Was there a little slot in her somewhere, like on a phone, where she could be plugged in? She was too big to drag around if all her parts stopped working. Hanna wanted her to come back to life; she threw a grape at her.
“Hey. Why are you throwing everything?” She tapped at Hanna’s plate, like that would make her hungry.
Hanna wanted to say Why? She wanted to say Stay here don’t go away don’t look so weird. She squeaked out a noise instead.
“Eat a little, something from each — you like these.”
Hanna put a piece of cheese in her mouth, sucked it a little, then took it out and dropped it on the floor. She and Mommy did one of their games, where they watched each other and neither of them spoke. And the whole time Hanna dropped pieces of her lunch on the ground, one tidbit at a time.
“Don’t you ever get tired? Just completely tired?”
Hanna blinked hard in surprise, and maybe that meant she’d lost the game, but she didn’t care. Mommy didn’t usually talk to her like she did to Daddy, but it was interesting, so she stuck a carrot in her mouth and waited to see what she would say next.
“Do you ever wish… Maybe you don’t even know who you are yet, so you probably don’t ever wish you were someone else. Not that I know who I’d want to be. Not someone I know, just someone… else. Maybe someone without…”
Hanna didn’t like what Mommy was saying, so she threw the carrot right at her eye.
“Hey!” She bent over and picked up the other bits that were littering the floor. “Don’t waste food. Do you want me to take it away?”
When Mommy started to pull it away, Hanna pulled it right back. Would Mommy really take her food away? Just because she wanted Mommy to stop being weird? She put a grape in her mouth and started chewing.
“I was just trying to make conversation. I always do all the talking and it’s like I just talk to myself all day. I didn’t think it would be so lonely. I didn’t think you’d be so hard to spend so much time with. You make me miss Alex, Daddy, who he was before.”
Hanna missed Daddy too. She spit the chewed grape into Mommy’s face.
“Hey, Hanna! That’s not how we eat our food, you know better. Chew and swallow, don’t put everything on the floor. If you don’t want to eat then just…” She flicked the grape onto her own plate.
Mommy deflated again, with a look on her face that Hanna thought meant there wasn’t a point. Hanna wasn’t worth the little energy she had left.
Hanna glared at her. She stuffed a grape in her mouth, a strawberry, a cheese cube, another cheese cube, another grape. And made a show of chewing, chewing.
“Thank you. See, that wasn’t so hard.”
When it was a nice mushy consistency, Hanna got up on her knees and spit the whole glob in Mommy’s face. It struck her cheek, then started to dribble down. Hanna giggled.
Mommy scooped the mash from her face. For a second Hanna thought she might cry. But Mommy got up and came around and forced the glop back into Hanna’s mouth. She held her hand there, making it so Hanna couldn’t open her lips. She couldn’t spit anything back out, but she could also barely breathe.
Mommy’s eyes looked scarier than the dead fish and she pressed hard against Hanna’s mouth. Hanna whimpered and tried to chew, but it was too tight and her teeth only gnawed on her cheeks as the gloop started slipping down her throat.
She started to gag but thankfully her tears made her throat too tight so nothing else went down that way and that’s when Mommy burst back to normal — “Oh my god I’m so sorry!” — and lifted the plate to her mouth so she could spit it all out.
Mommy patted her back and wiped her chin and Hanna coughed and coughed.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I did that. Oh, baby.” Mommy scooped her onto her hip, bouncing her, kissing her. “I’m so sorry. You’re okay, I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did that. I love you, baby, I love you.” She kissed her cheek so many times.
But Mommy wasn’t full of love. She was full of fear.
Daddy came in then. Had he been upstairs? Outside? Both she and Mommy were crying. Daddy ran over like a superhero.
“She was choking.”
“Is she okay? You okay?”
Hanna reached her arms out to Daddy and he took her, bouncing her just like Mommy did. “Just scared?”
“It really scared us, I don’t know what happened.”
“Everything’s okay now,” Daddy said. And it was. With him, Hanna felt safe.
Mommy gave her a sip of water to drink and smoothed out her hair. “You’re okay now. We’re okay.”
Hanna gazed at her, in a new way. A kind of game that wasn’t fun, but deadly serious. Like a war. She thought Mommy even understood. She stayed all big-eyed and hovering. Finally Daddy gripped Mommy’s arm.
“It’s okay, she’s fine.”
“I can’t do this, Alex.”
“You can. It happens. Look, totally fine.”
“I don’t understand her anymore — “
“She’ll start talking soon.”
“I don’t know what she wants, I don’t know what she needs. I think maybe… Do you think there’s anything wrong?”
“With her hearing?”
“You can hear Daddy, can’t you?” And Hanna replied with a big grin. “That’s my girl.”
To show Mommy there was nothing wrong with her, she reached out her arms. Mommy hesitated, but Daddy held her out for Mommy to take.
“See, she’s all good,” Daddy said.
But Hanna felt it, how Mommy couldn’t relax with her in her arms. How Mommy wanted to drop her.
She knew then, she needed to test Mommy. To find out what she was made of. Was she a sandcastle that would melt away as the water lapped ashore? Or was she made of rockier stuff? Daddy never crumbled. Hanna was determined to give Mommy every possible chance.
Mommy owed her — and more than the empty apology that tumbled so easily from her lips. She understood then how words could hide a deeper truth. But actions. That’s what Daddy’s mom said, and Daddy agreed: actions speak louder than words. So Hanna would act, and give Mommy a chance to act in reply. And then she’d know. If Mommy passed or failed.