Review: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
Source: Digital galley courtesy of Tundra Books, imprint of Random House of Canada Limited, via NetGalley. Thank you!
Expected Publication: Hardcover and Kindle edition, May 12, 2015
Verdict: Very Good/Excellent
Thirteen-year-old Stewart Inkster is academically brilliant but “ungifted” socially. Fourteen-year-old Ashley Anderson is the undisputed “It” girl of grade nine, but her marks stink. Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. “The Brady Bunch” it isn’t. Stewart is trying to be 89.9% happy about it, but Ashley is 110% horrified. She already has to hide the truth behind her parents’ divorce; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder. They are complete opposites. And yet, no matter their differences, they share one thing in common: they–like the rest of us–are all made of molecules. Written in alternating voices, Susin Nielsen deftly explores family tragedy and family ties; sibling rivalry and union; and adolescent confusion and revelation.
Similarly to Kate DiCamillo and R.J. Palacio, Nielsen’s work in children’s and YA literature is elegant, meaningful, and utterly affecting. I mentioned on Twitter to the lovely Canadian author herself that her work can- within the space of just a few paragraphs- move me from laughter to tears. I would argue that there are not many authors who can do that with a reader’s emotions!
We Are All Made of Molecules, Nielsen’s fourth novel, is broadly about family and change- and the many variations, difficulties, hurt and love that come with the territory. Told in two alternating first-person narratives, we are brought into the lives of Stewart and Ashley: young teens from disparate backgrounds who have clashing perspectives regarding their respective parents come together. Stewart, while still wholly missing his beloved mom, is initially pretty pleased to be gaining a sister and a mother figure; Ashley is just…enraged. She does not want her beautiful and successful mom to be with Stewart’s father. And in her mind, having the slightly awkward, slightly peculiar and highly intelligent Stewart as a sort-of-brother is terrible. A potentially cataclysmic social disaster. This is made even worse by the fact that Ashley cannot face that her parents are separated primarily on account of her father’s sexual orientation.
It would be easy to write off Ashley as the typically snooty and non-academically inclined mean girl, and Stewart as the typically kooky and kind, somewhere-off-the-spectrum kid. However, Nielsen carries off their distinct narratives seamlessly, folding back layers of their personalities and psyche so well over the course of the novel that I felt their characters to be more whole than just embodying parts of stock characters. I enjoyed reading the evolution in thought and intent of both the characters, and while the ending is perhaps too orderly and sunny for both Ashley and Stewart, it did not detract from my sincerely joyful reading experience. Nielsen has a way of constructing noteworthy characters one grows to love and remember; there will be a number of new ones you will meet and adore here! Fans of Nielsen’s previous work will also welcome the return of Violet and Phoebe from Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom: they have some terrific moments here. (A few other characters from previous novels also make appearances!).
If you have read Nielsen’s previous titles- Word Nerd, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom or The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen- then I would definitely recommend this title. While, for me, this novel did not pack the same level of emotional intensity and urgency in plot and characters of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen (a favourite of mine), We Are All Made of Molecules is still a wonderful read- poignant and beautifully written. Fans of Canadian lit and readers who enjoy the work of the aforementioned DiCamillo, Palacio, as well as Kenneth Oppel, Kit Pearson, Rebecca Stead or Sheila Turnage, might be especially drawn to this novel.
I received this book as a digital galley from Tundra Books, imprint of Random House of Canada Limited, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.