Drama, humour, poignancy, and suspense are rarely found in such perfect proportions as in Governor General’s Literary Award–winner Susin Nielsen’s new novel about a teen odd couple forced together in a blended family situation.
Thirteen-year-old Stewart is gifted academically but has trouble picking up on social cues. Two years after his mother (whom he describes as “a quality human being”) died of cancer, he and his dad are moving in with his dad’s girlfriend, Caroline. Though Stewart is 89.9 per cent happy about the move, Caroline’s 14-year-old daughter couldn’t be less so. Ashley is essentially Stewart’s polar opposite: she’s popular and attractive, but gets terrible grades and is prone to malapropisms (“But I regress”). Naturally she’s beyond mortified when she finds out that geeky “Spewart” won’t just be living with her, he’ll be attending the same school.
Ashley’s hostility seems partly fuelled by anger with her father, who came out to the family as gay around the time Stewart’s mom died. Although Ashley doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality per se, the announcement made her feel like she didn’t really know her dad.
When Stewart discovers that Ashley has a crush on Jared, the hot new guy who’s been bullying him in the school locker room, he cleverly leverages his newfound status as her stepbrother to improve his lot with both parties. But this respite comes to a quick end when Stewart realizes Jared’s feelings for Ashley are more predatory than romantic, and further, that Jared might have been expelled from his last school for violence against a gay student.
Nielsen is a master at eliciting sympathy for her characters, especially Ashley, whose vulnerabilities, once exposed, mitigate her outward bitchiness. A touching, unexpected alliance between Stewart and Ashley’s dad is another of the novel’s enjoyable surprises.
Nielsen, who now has four YA novels under her belt, cut her teeth as a screenwriter for the original Degrassi Junior High, which helps account for the novel’s expert pacing and cliffhanger chapter endings. We Are All Made of Molecules is chockablock with timely and weighty issues, yet it feels feather-light thanks in large part to some truly funny writing. Teens will be so busy turning pages they won’t even realize they’re thinking. This is stellar, top-notch stuff.