Amazon Vine offered to send me We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen in exchange for my honest opinion. It has cropped up in a few of the broadsheets’ Teen Must Read articles for 2015 already, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
It tells the story of Stewart, a gifted but socially backwards teenager, and Ashley, a precocious teenage girl with social climber aspirations who worries more about her clothes and popularity than she does about being nice. The two, wildly disparate teens meet because their parents move in with each other.
Stewart’s mother died of cancer two years before the book’s opening, and a year before the story begins, Ashley’s father has come out as gay to his mother. Ashley’s father now lives in the house next door to Ashley and her mother and Stewart and his father have just moved in.
The teens take it in turns to narrate a chapter each of the story, starting with Stewart. Stewart is basically optimistic and sunny. He is looking forward to having a new sister and has made the decision to transfer to her school from his gifted and talented school so he can learn social skills. He is also rather optimistic about this.
Ashley hates Stewart and his father, Len. She hates the furniture they bring with them. She hates her father, she hates her mother. The only thing she doesn’t hate is herself and that’s not actually true, but she’s not allowing her social veneer to crack for an instant.
The story tells of roughly the first six months of life together as a blended family. It touches on homophobia, bullying, sexual aggression, the problems of modern family life, the problems of being on the autistic spectrum, the issue of bereavement, the problems of parenting, the problems of being a teenager. It deals with pretty much everything that can happen in a teen/Ya novel basically.
This is part of its problem for me. It tries to do too much in a very limited number of pages. The chapters are short and nothing is ever really gone into in depth. We get an almost soundbyte approach to everything, and by the end of the novel most things are pretty neatly resolved. It was frustrating because it meant that you didn’t really get much of a sense of Stewart and Ashely as real people. Their problems are real, but the solutions and their responses seem a bit indentikit, and come so thick and fast you don’t really get much time to digest them. I’d have preferred to have the author tackle a couple of issues in depth and really give some colour and emotional meaning to the characters experiencing them.
I also found it absolutely impossible to believe that given the fact that Stewart’s father and Ashley’s mother are depicted as really lovely, rational, intelligent people, that they wouldn’t have introduced the children to each other prior to moving in together. This smacked too much of utter fantasy, which was a shame, because the writing was good, and the book had so much potential, but was something that niggled at me throughout.
If you want to look at many issues at a surface level. If you want to find a book to tackle some key teen problems and use it as a jumping off point for deeper discussions, this is for you. Otherwise I’ld look at authors like Jerry Spinelli, Mark Haddon and RJ Palacio first.
This is suitable for teens aged 12 plus because of the mild sexual content. It is, in my mind a book that will appeal to girls rather than boys, despite half the book being narrated by Stewart.