“Somewhere in the night forest, the boy is running. I cannot smell him, like my sister Luna and our cousin Rhys can…but I can hear him” (Szabo 1).
What Big Teeth, the debut novel by Virginia-based writer Rose Szabo, is an interesting case. Half Gothic mystery, half meditation on the nature of family and inter-generational trauma, it is a book that intends to grab you and not let go.
The premise is simple enough: teenager Eleanor Zarrin has been away at boarding school for years when an accident leads to her returning home. The problem? The Zarrins are monsters in a town that fears them—and yes, I mean that literally. A family of mostly werewolves, the Zarrins are what would happen if the Addams Family existed in real life.
From there, a variety of questions arise about both the nature of the Zarrins and of Eleanor herself, and the story that begins to take shape is one full of longing and pain and, most poignantly of all, transformation.
Szabo writes with a deliberate pacing and genre awareness. They mix the tropes one would expect from a Gothic fantasy coming-of-age with a concerted effort to make the familiar unfamiliar. In the hands of another author, this might come off as more gimmick than heart. Szabo, however, ensures that this narrative remains thoroughly grounded as Eleanor struggles with desire, rejection, and loss—not all of it her own.
The Zarrins are more than the sum of their parts as well—grounded firmly in the middle of the century, the choices and sins of the elders echo firmly across the younger generation. The meddling grandmother and her mysteriously ageless tax accountant, the werewolf cousin whose teeth remain canine, the amphibian mother shaped by a childhood of grief and difference—all of these characters come alive, and while Szabo never tells us what is right, they do answer the more interesting question of why. Eleanor herself is right in the middle of this as she struggles with getting to know a family she barely remembers and understanding that she is as much a Zarrin as any of them—with all the implications, pain, and drama that entails.
As with any coming-of-age story, love plays a major role. Here again, Szabo shows they’ve given this book deliberate thought and care. Love comes in many forms in this book, and Szabo takes the time to dig into what love means to a person who doesn’t even really know herself yet. Desire is given an animalistic physicality as Eleanor struggles to not just understand herself and her wants, but also determine where the line is. How do you stop your love from being all-consuming when there’s not enough of you to know what you means yet?
While it wouldn’t be unfair to call this book slowly-paced, it would be unfair to list this as a negative quality. This book is slow and patient with its reader precisely because everything has a purpose. You need to understand the atmosphere of the Zarrins’ home in order to see how Eleanor disrupts it. You learn the book’s approximate timeline because the world has touched the Zarrins even as they tried not to touch the world.
As YA books go, this is a novel that doesn’t simply know its audience: it understands them. As much as Szabo knows they have written a coming-of-age story with all the hormones and questionable decisions that includes, they also take their protagonist seriously. When Eleanor makes a choice, even as the reader knows it is the wrong one, Szabo commits to the fallout with the quiet sentiment that it all means something. When the stakes are raised as the book’s finale approaches, readers can trust that same sentiment to the end. Change happens slowly and quickly and painfully, but it always means something
Jake Demers spent his formative years in Ohio, and has spent the last six years bouncing around the country in pursuit of various Fine Arts degrees. He believes a good queer story is hard to find and that call centers are the devil’s work. He is also quite fond of music.