A Review of What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo
Words By Kaitlin Lounsberry
Published on February 2, 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rose Szabo’s debut novel, What Big Teeth, presents a unique mix of contemporary gothic horror meets Addams family weirdness with a touch of whodunit. The book promises dark, thrill-inducing horror and delivers a vivid world of monsters but with a lackluster plot.
I wanted to like this book. I desperately wanted to like this book. What Big Teeth had all the elements needed for a contemporary YA gothic horror novel, complete with the eerie, foreboding house and lots of twists and turns. The novel starts off with a memory . . . or is it? We find young Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, chasing a boy through the forest with her werewolf cousins.
Unlike her furry counterparts, Eleanor chases on foot but with just as much hunger for blood. Right as she pounces, we’re thrust forward to a teenage Eleanor returning home under mysterious circumstances with a parsed memory of the family that awaits. From there we’re introduced to the Zarrin clan. There’s a witchy grandmother; a foreboding aunt who communicates strictly with grunts and gestures; a mom who’s half-polyps, half-human and consistently resides in tubs of water; the mysterious family friend Arthur; and the wolves: Grandpa, Dad, cousin, and sister.
Sounds like everything you’d need for a bloody good read, right? Unfortunately, the plot fizzled out pretty quickly after the familial introductions. There were attempts to pick it up after Eleanor witnesses her grandmother’s sudden death in the middle of a tarot reading, but Szabo struggled to deliver a clear-cut plot that kept me captivated. It was almost as though Szabo didn’t know which plot points to focus on and, instead, tried to pack the story with too much content and not enough contextual elements to back up a lot of those points. So much happens that it was difficult to locate a focal point and allow the weight of certain foreshadowing to sink in and inform as the book progressed. Coupled with drawn-out pacing, it wasn’t until the last third of the novel that anything with serious implications towards the characters unfolded.
While the pacing of the book wasn’t my particular cup of tea, Szabo takes what could stand alone as a novel of mystics and death and injects a strained family dynamic that captured me as a reader. Eleanor returns to her home expecting warmth but instead receives cold shoulders and curt conversations. She’s confused about why her grandmother sent her away to boarding school and feels out of place in a family that was once loving and accepting towards her. Conflict ensues with most family members, often filled with loaded accusations and years of built-up frustration. All that couples with Eleanor’s struggle to belong and protect her family from their wolfish instincts following her grandmother’s death. Despite the fantastical elements, the tense relationships and secrets help ground a lot of the characters making it easier to place yourself in this world and empathize with the stakes placed before Eleanor.
Though Szabo made me feel enamored with this dysfunctional group, I had difficulties connecting with the mysterious family friend, Arthur. This strange gentleman is the main love interest for Eleanor and her sister and her cousin and her father and really just about every other member of the Zarrin family. Though this bizarre love-clan dynamic is eventually explained in the book, that relationship didn’t add much value to What Big Teeth’s overall plot. The whole thing felt like an afterthought that only added more aspects to try and piece together into the book. I would have rather Szabo given more focus and attention to the discovery of what Eleanor is than chunk in a strange love story with little payout. The question of who she is and how she fits into the family is something Eleanor struggles with in the early parts of the book. We’re offered a rushed, muddled explanation in the midst of a chaotic conclusion, and the choice to brush over an essential, character-building moment felt like it did Eleanor and the book a disservice.
That all said, What Big Teeth isn’t without its strengths. While the book struggles to keep its main plot going, Szabo captured the gothic horror essence beautifully. The house the Zarrins reside in is creepy and melancholy and I didn’t want the descriptions to end. In line with classic gothic horror tropes, the house sets the tone and atmosphere for much of the plot—complete with doors that are locked for some and not others as well as trick panels hiding some of the family’s darkest secrets. In fact, it almost seemed like Szabo went down a gothic horror trope list and tried to check off as many as they could within their novel. Not-so-hidden, hidden love child? Check. Attraction to a secretive, dangerous man? Check x6. Diary from a dead family member that conveniently offers up answers to intense, pressing questions? Well, you get the point. While there was a struggle to balance different plots, Szabo wove all these elements together to create a lush, captivating world that I didn’t want to leave.
The book has flaws that are pretty difficult to overlook, but I think What Big Teeth is a great indication of what’s to expect from Szabo in the future. Plot is an essential element for any good story, but the creation of an atmosphere that enhances and engages readers is also important and as difficult to accomplish. While I didn’t come away loving this book, Szabo’s debut leads me to believe that what’s to follow will be more eerie, sinister, and focused.