Book Review: What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young adult Gothic horror
Publisher: FSG
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: Edelweiss

Rose Szabo’s thrilling debut is a dark and thrilling novel about a teen girl who returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement, perfect for fans of Wilder Girls.

Eleanor Zarrin has been estranged from her wild family for years. When she flees boarding school after a horrifying incident, she goes to the only place she thinks is safe: the home she left behind. But when she gets there, she struggles to fit in with her monstrous relatives, who prowl the woods around the family estate and read fortunes in the guts of birds.

Eleanor finds herself desperately trying to hold the family together — in order to save them all, Eleanor must learn to embrace her family of monsters and tame the darkness inside her.

Exquisitely terrifying, beautiful, and strange, this fierce gothic fantasy will sink its teeth into you and never let go.

NOTE: There are spoilers for this book in the review!

I almost gave up on What Big Teeth about 30% of the way in. The beginning was confusing, as it made me think I had missed a detail or an explanation of something that needed an explanation, when I hadn’t. Half of Eleanor’s mother’s body is covered in polyps, and she spends all her time in water. This is actually never explained and it’s never said why her mother is obviously part-fish. Eleanor seems to have gotten some traits from the fish part of her mother, such as webbed skin between her thumbs and enjoying being in the water, but it’s never followed through. More to the point, Eleanor keeps wondering why she’s so different from the rest of her family and why she never became a wolf, and it’s like… girl, you obviously took after your mother. What is there not to get? 

I suppose Szabo wanted to give her readers some credit and assume they were smart enough to put the pieces together themselves, but this doesn’t really work. Honestly, the character of the mother could have been cut out entirely and the novel wouldn’t have lost anything; her characterization is thin and she has no effect on the plot.

That was a big theme in What Big Teeth, actually: Eleanor never puts the pieces together until well after the reader has. The book is slowly paced and I’ve read that it’s more suited to older readers who have the patience to wait for answers, but I think that Eleanor’s inability to put the obvious together would cause older readers to get frustrated quickly. It’s very obvious what’s going on, but Eleanor doesn’t catch on right away, and when she does, she intentionally ignores it so the plot can continue.

Another big theme was introducing things and then just not following through on them. Eleanor’s maternal grandmother can force people to do things through verbal commands, such as “Go to your room and stay there”. This works on everyone, even Eleanor, but not her older sister Luma. Just like their mother’s half-fish background, this is never explained. I suppose some readers will be fine with this, but I personally wasn’t.

There’s also a reveal at the end that Eleanor is a reincarnation of her paternal grandparent’s first child who died young, but that was in no way foreshadowed at all through the novel. There was more support for her being a reincarnation of her maternal grandmother’s children than there was for that. 

The ending was pretty strong, to the point where I wondered if it was written as a short story first and then Szabo just built a novel around it. I will say it was a relatively fast read because the writing wasn’t overly purple-y; it was actually a little sparse, for a Gothic horror. 

I might come back for another novel by Szabo, as maybe the weak points here were just because she’s a debut author. I’m sad to say What Big Teeth was a miss for me, though.

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