Friday, 11 March 2016

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

A beautiful, beautiful book, We Are Made Of Molecules is a story about modern families and making room for everybody's baggage. It's about making the effort to let go of resentment and anger and caring about reputations and others' opinions and making that conscious decision to be a happier, nicer person. It's about empathy and being comfortable with yourself. It's such a good book.

Stewart, the first narrator, is a kid gifted in the intelligence stakes but lacking with the social skills. He's just lost his beloved mum to cancer and he's dealing with his loss with the help of his counsellor and his dad. He's brilliantly funny, stoic and fabulously deadpan. Two years after her death, his dad has decided to move them in with his new girlfriend Caroline and her daughter Ashley. Stewart finds Ashley an absolute mystery, but he's always wanted a sister, so he's willing to give it a go.

Ashley is the second narrator. She is furious at her father for coming out as gay and is struggling to adjust to having her mum's boyfriend and his weird son in the house. She considers herself to be at the top of the social pile at school, and retains her position with catty comments, manipulative behaviour and a total mistrust of the people she calls friends. When the book begins, she really does not seem a nice person, but it's insecurity about her intelligence and low self esteem that has brought out the worst in her. Ashley is angry and confused and doesn't know who to blame for it.

I absolutely adored Stewart. A bit naive, a bit sheltered, but so mature and incredibly clever. His relationship with his grieving father is touching- they are connected by their loss and are determined to keep their memories alive. I loved how Stewart immediately accepts his new family situation. He's very practical and understands right away that his dad has found a new sort of happiness with Caroline. He gets that she's not out to replace his mom, but he understands that his dad is happy, and that makes him happy as a result. Despite his difficulty with social skills, he gets the duality of people- you can be happy and sad at the same time. You can have moved on, but still love a person who is no longer around. Ashley is the opposite. She's rude and resistant to the changes she has no control over. She's condescending and cruel to Stewart, a nightmare for her mum and concerned only with her own  affairs- clothes, being top dog at school, her reputation and trying to catch the eye of the hottest boy in school. While keeping her dad's new boyfriend and Stewart's existence a total secret. She has to be mean to begin with so she can adjust.

I liked this book's portrayal of a step family and the difficulties that must arise from such a set up. How it must be awkward to discipline a kid that technically doesn't belong to you, how difficult it must be to not take the side of your own offspring, and feeling like you should out of duty and so on. Just the every-day issues that must make things ten times more complex.

The novel touches on quite a lot of contemporary issues that makes it feel relevant and like a believable mixture of things that readers might have encountered. The Mean Girls style school politics, having a boyfriend that at best isn't what he's cracked up to be, and at worst has the makings of a sexually abusive creep and master manipulator. Having to deal with change and conflict and making amends. There's the issues surrounding hate crimes against LGBT people and the loss of loved ones. The narrative doesn't feel overburdened or bogged down by any of these issues, it just feels realistic. The actual plot is quite mundane- it's just real life, plain and simple. dealing with problems at school; bullying, manipulation, people seeming nice and actually being cruel. The difficulty of making friends, the anxieties about feeling accepted. There isn't really a grand climax- it's just people learning what matters.

I absolutely loved this book. It's full of heart and love and unlikely people helping each other out. It's take home message is that families are weird and no two are alike, but if a person is just willing to listen and understand, it's possible for almost anything to work. I loved how Ashley's character developed- it wasn't just that she came to see the error of her ways overnight- I think she hit that adolescent sweet spot that happens to some people. That liberating realisation that it doesn't *Actually matter* what people think of you, that calling somebody ugly might make you feel better for a second but it doesn't make you prettier. She grew up and took some responsibility, and it made her a better person. Guided by the wise and utterly un-self-conscious Stewart.

We are all Made of Molecules falls very much into the "Be Yourself" genre of YA fiction. Those that enjoyed this novel would  also do much worse than to read One by Sarah Crossan and The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson, both of which are also dual narrated stories about being different, standing out versus fitting in and adjusting to deal with it. Young people's fiction is incredible right now.

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