Review: We are All Made of Molecules by @susinnielsen


Review Copy filched from Kaleidoscope Kids Books (where they undoubtedly have copies!), review permission from Tundra books 🙂

What can I say? Nielsen has done it again. Maybe I have to admit to myself and the blogosphere that I have a soft spot for her heartfelt, hilarious voice, but I must also contend that Nielsen is simply a great Canadian writer (so get out there and read on of her books, this book even!).

Two years ago, 13 year-old Stewart and his father Leonard lost a point in their equilateral triangle, she died of cancer. Two years ago Ashley’s Dad came out as gay to his family, the world and himself. We are all Made of Molecules is about the merging of these two families. Leonard and Caroline work together at the newsroom and have slowly fallen in love with each other. So, with little choice of their own, Stewart and Ashley’s worlds, like tectonic plates, are smashed together.

Stewart, who has always wanted a sister, faces the changes bravely, in memory of his mother who he knew to be very brave. In addition to having to move out of his childhood home (where the remnants of his mother’s molecules reside) and packing up most of their old stuff into a storage locker (more of mom’s molecules locked away), Stewart also decides to attend regular high school. Up until now he has attended a school for the gifted, but Stewart’s mother taught him well, he knows that the wide world is out there and that he needs to be prepared to meet it. So he decides to work on his “ungifted” parts (social interactions) and attends regular high school with Ashley — only, because he is “gifted,” he is bumped up a grade and is now in grade nine with Ashley.

Ashley is mortified.

Not only has she hidden the fact that her father is gay from everyone at school, not because she is “gayist” but because it would damage her nearly perfect social image, but now she has to deal with the freakazoid attending (and doing better in) all of her classes. Ashley, who, like Stewart, has “ungifted” aspects to her (like her terrible memory for names and words), is not facing the changes with bravery, or any sort of coherent coping strategy at all. She longs for the perfect life with the perfect parents that all of her friends were envious of before her Dad ruined it all. And, why couldn’t her parents just get a normal divorce and hate each other? Phil, her father, now lives in the family laneway house, not five feet from the family he used to be a part of — and still struggles to be a part of, if Ashley would only let him — and has started bringing a guy, Michael, home.

The alternating viewpoints are wonderfully juxtaposed with Stewart matter-of-factly graphing each day of the week in terms of how well it went on a scale of 1 to 100, and Ashley documenting her queen bee status in the school hallways. Their priorities and ways of seeing are pitch perfect, charming and obviously flawed. Events unfold like the stirring of a volcano eruption, just a little steam at first but the tension in the series of events slowly evolves into a full blown eruption — losses are suffered, truths have to be faced and really, it’s Ashley who has to step up and make some changes.

If I had one complaint (this is an honest review afterall, despite my soft spot), I would point out that I wanted just a little bit more interaction between Caroline and Stewart. They way that these two characters accept each other is, overall, remarkable in that there was very little drama. Some minor adjustments for everyone, a certain painting incident, but no major upheavals. In a way it was refreshing, does there have to be upheaval? But then, after sitting on it for a little while, I think one solid conversation between just the two of them would have been welcome, just to get a hint at their relationship on a solo level was needed.

Still, it’s a wonderful read, hilarious in the way that life is just funny and terribly heart-wrenching because sometimes every day is just hard. As with Nielsen’s other books this one tackles a myriad of social and family issues in a realistic and small, but significant, way (bullying, coming of age, homophobia, and all of those themes that have too many words like “what it means to really be brave” and “finding out what true friendship means” etc…). I also left the book feeling a little bit smarter, having learned about science, math and (via Ashley’s misspeakings) language. The cast of characters are wonderfully dynamic, Neilsen’s experience working on Degrassi scripts in high school hallways is abundantly clear in Ashley’s POV while her ability to write a charmingly clueless (yet brilliant) 13 year old boy still rings true (as with Word Nerd and The Reluctant Journal).

In conclusion I give this book all the stars on all the scales and you should all go out and read Susin Nielsen’s books. Go!