I have followed Kristen Arnett online for a while now, and when she announced her new release With Teeth I knew it was time to read her previous novels. I was shocked that my local (Florida!) library didn’t have a copy of Mostly Dead Things, but I was lucky enough to snag it on a Kindle Daily Deal.
This ties with Red, White & Royal Blue for the gayest book I have ever read (and speaking of Casey McQuiston, her newest novel One Last Stop comes out in June!). But in stark contrast with McQuiston, Arnett takes us to darker, deeper places, and the colors only brighten when they shine from a recently taxidermied peacock or bear.
The story begins with Jessa’s discovery of her father after he recently committed suicide in their taxidermy shop. Her childhood friend and lover Brynn (who is also married to Jessa’s brother) abandons them both without warning, leaving them to hold the family they had begun together. And Jessa’s mother has begun doing taxidermy in secret, and Jessa discovers her work displayed in the shop’s storefront window: animals having sex with each other, sex toys and all. To say their lives are a hot, wet, Florida mess would be a vast understatement.
I have two favorite things about this book. First is the thing I love about all gay af books, Jessa’s sexuality is presented as normal and everyday. It’s not something she struggles with or that she has to hide. Her struggles are with her abandonment issues and whether she should try to love again, not the fact that she is a lesbian. I will read any book that does this and then celebrate it and suggest it to all my friends.
Second, I think that it would have been easy for Arnett to have written a clean break for Jessa, where she doesn’t associate with her mom anymore. It also would have been easy to have written that they made up and met in the middle – her mom agreeing not to show her sexually explicit taxidermy and Jessa agreeing to involve her more in the business. Neither of these decisions would have felt true to the spirit of the novel, however, and I respect Arnett for sticking to the idea that we should be the person we feel is the most true and be prepared to accept others as they are as well, even if how they choose to handle their own lives doesn’t always make us feel comfortable. It’s perfectly okay for Jessa’s discomfort with her mom’s work to coexist with the fact that she loves her mom and wants her to be happy. It’s possible to not understand something and still be supportive of the people you love. Jessa coming to terms with her mother’s choices and desires and choosing to expand the shop to accommodate her art was so heartwarming my chest almost burst.
Suffice it to say that there is enough dysfunction here to keep us all busy for years. I haven’t even talked about Jessa’s brother or his two kids, and that’s another entire can of worms! Lucky for me and for you as well, this dysfunction is woven into the lives of all the characters who must continue moving forward despite everything, and Arnett keeps you hooked so well with all the players that you’ll never feel bogged down in the grief or horrified by the gore or shocked by the sexual content for very long before you must adjust and absorb the next moment. And isn’t that what life is all about?
Once you begin to read this gay, weird, horny, Florida book you won’t be able to put it down. Go get it. You won’t be disappointed.
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