Molecules will never cease
July 28th, 2015
In Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules (Tundra $10.99), online Stewart and Ashley are two completely different teenagers, order with different outlooks, more about forced to share the same roof by their freshly united parents.
Stewart Inkster is a gifted, kind, but socially inept 13-year-old. He and his dad Leonard have struggled with grief since Stewart’s mom died of cancer. Brainy Stewart, who measures his days and moods in mathematical terms, describes his former family unit as an “equilateral triangle” that collapsed when his mom died.
Stewart’s dad Leonard has recently found love with his longtime friend and colleague Caroline Anderson, mom to 14-year-old Ashley, a selfish queen bee who treats others badly and constantly misuses words. While not book smart, she is a genius when it comes to her high school’s social ladder. Ashley sits at the top rung and will do whatever it takes to remain there.
Leonard and Caroline have decided to live together, so Stewart and his father make the move from their North Vancouver home to Caroline’s place in East Vancouver. Complicating matters is the fact Ashley’s dad (and Caroline’s ex-husband) Phil lives in the property’s laneway home. Despite a seemingly happy marriage, Caroline and Phil divorced when Phil acknowledged that he was gay.
Ashley hasn’t forgiven her father for breaking their family apart and she questions whether or not he ever really loved her or her mom. She can’t fully accept her dad’s homosexuality and, worried her friends won’t be accepting either, hides the real reason for her parents’ divorce.
Nielsen simultaneously depicts the devastation and the “black hole of sadness” that accompanies the loss of a loved one through Stewart’s struggles to deal with his mother’s death. He has a therapist on speed-dial and the companionship of his beloved cat Schrödinger.
Stewart is initially enthusiastic about gaining a sister, but when Ashley’s nastiness surfaces he realizes his vision of the new family doesn’t match the reality. Ashley resents having new people (and new belongings) in her home.
Things get worse when Stewart decides to go to Ashley’s high school where his high IQ bumps him up into her grade. Ashley is devastated, certain that “nerd-bot” Stewart will threaten her social status.
It isn’t until popular new student Jared enters the picture that Ashley and Stewart start having to rely on each other. Jared has his bully-scope targeted on Stewart, and only Stewart’s connection to Ashley keeps him at bay. Ashley has a crush on Jared, and Stewart is useful first as a go-between for their messages, then as a decoy for Jared’s after-school visits.
As Stewart and Ashley find out more about who Jared really is, there are ugly examples of bullying, harassment and assault. But there are also lovely examples of the good in people.
Ashley discovers that the quality of a person goes far deeper than their appearance. Stewart finds that taking risks, while scary, can be life-changing. The two also learn about bravery, compromise and standing up for others.
We Are All Made of Molecules is convincingly told from the alternating perspectives of Stewart and Ashley, with equal skill. While Nielsen’s book is geared for the young adult market, there is plenty to keep adult readers engaged. It’s a story told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity, based on characters that could easily be the teens next door.
Ashley and Stewart’s struggles and achievements remind us that no matter how different we may seem, at the core we are all interconnected. Because after all, we are all made of molecules.
Review by Denise Reid a graduate of Douglas College.