Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2016

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen #BookReview

We Are All Made of MoleculesWell, it’s a catchy title, and it did what it was supposed to do, it caught my attention at the library.  I’d heard of it somewhere, somehow, so I took it home…

We Are All Made of Molecules turned out to be what is marketed so successfully as Young Adult, so my expectations were circumscribed by the limitations of the genre.  But the book turned out to be a curious blend of lame characterisation and mature themes, which made me appreciate anew a childhood which was innocent of knowledge about date rape, feral parties, homophobia and sexting.

Alternating narratives from step-siblings Ashley (14) and Stewart (13) reveal their contrasting attitudes to their newly blended family, and the tone is light-hearted even when the didacticism goes into overdrive.  Ashley is characterised as an airhead, obsessed by fashion and her Queen Bee status at school, while Stewart who is gifted is wise and thoughtful even though he is a nerd.  This stereotyping is so obvious that it came as no surprise to discover at the end of the book that the author scripted a teen soap opera called Degrassi Junior High. 

Ashley is consistently mean, patronising, and painfully dim.  Her malapropisms are a running gag which wears thin very quickly.  She doesn’t read her set texts at school so she fails her assignments.  Her mother Caroline is a newsreader and her new stepfather Leonard produces the news, but she can’t join in family conversations because she is clueless about current affairs.  She is incredibly rude, pathetically sulky, and she responds only to bribery involving designer skirts.  Worst of all, she has rejected her father Phil who has triggered the family breakup by ‘coming out’ as gay and won’t have anything to do with him.

Mom stopped doing her yoga routine.  She smoothed a piece of hair from my face.  ‘Ashley, I’m truly sorry this is so hard for you. But try to put yourself in your dad’s shoes for a moment. Why shouldn’t he bring this person home?  I brought Leonard home, didn’t I?’

‘This is different.  You know this is different!’

‘Why?  Because he’s gay? You’re sounding remarkably homophobic, which is not how we raised you.’

‘I’m not. But some of my friends might be.’

‘If your friends have a problem with it, then they’re clearly not your friends.’

‘Oh my God. You don’t understand anything. Why is everyone in my family so determined to ruin my life?’

Mom sighed.  She went back to her yoga, moving into a downward dog.  ‘You’re right.  There’s no use pretending any more. We actually hold secret meetings once a week, just to figure out new ways to torment you and make your life a living hell.’

‘I knew it!’

‘That was my attempt at sarcasm, sweetheart.  Contrary to what you believe at this stage of your life, we aren’t all out to get you.  So please stop being so melodramatic.’

This made no sense whatsoever.  How can you be mellow and dramatic at the same time?  (p.109)

(Now, there is a serious issue up for grabs in this little exchange, and that is, how does an obviously intelligent parent come to terms with having a child who is as thick as two planks and shallow into the bargain?  In this book Ashley is given a rare talent in fashion design, so of course it’s going to be ok.  But parental disappointment with the lack-lustre achievement of a dearly loved child is not always so easily resolved…)

Anyway, Ashley’s cruelty to her father gives Stewart the opportunity to take the moral high ground and point out that his mother is dead; at least her father is still alive.  And remarkably close by, in the back garden, living in what’s called in Vancouver a ‘laneway house’, similar, I gather, to subdivisions in Melbourne that allow for greater urban density by building a second, smaller house or unit in the backyard of quarter-acre blocks in the suburbs.  It is Stewart who leads the moral push to bring Phil and his new boyfriend Michael into the fold, overcoming the hesitancy of the parents with his mature attitude and the hostility of Ashley with a bribe i.e. that his naïve ‘friendship’ with The School Bully Jared will help her to get a date with him.

It is when Jared is brought into Ashley’s orbit that things get really nasty, and that’s what makes this book problematic.  The nastiness of the issues are likely to make parents and teachers hesitate before recommending this book to younger readers who might tolerate the black-and-white characterisation.  OTOH the cardboard characterisation is too childish for the age group that might profitably discuss the issues that arise when foolish girls put themselves in vulnerable situations.    In this novel Stewart the nerd becomes a Superman who rescues Ashley in a David-and-Goliath situation where previously he had relied only on his brains and his superior understanding of human relationships.  But presumably only readers as dim as Ashley would fail to be aware that Supermen are in short supply in real life and that girls and women need to protect themselves and not rely on some man to rescue them…

There are plenty of important issues to unpack in We Are All Made of Molecules (and the publisher has included one of my pet hates, discussion questions at the back, along with painfully fake Q&A pages with the author), but if I try to imagine my 15/16 year old self being made to read this book for school when at home I was reading the complex characterisations of Anna Karenina and Persuasion, I would have been hard-pressed to restrain my adolescent contempt.   There has to be a better way of helping young people deal with the complex 21st century world than this kind of book, there just has to be…

Author: Susin Neilsen
Title: We Are All Made of Molecules
Publisher: Andersen Press, London, 2015
ISBN: 9781783442324
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I couldn’t imagine having an Ashley except as a step child. And then I guess you take it slowly (and with your partner’s support!). Didactic books of this type are weird, and probably bought by non reading parents/teachers of whom of course there are far too many.

    • Well, I never taught in high school, so perhaps my experience of the age group is limited, but I’ve never met anyone so irredeemably awful. People are more complex than that, even when they’re children and adolescents.

  2. I haven’t read the book but I always enjoy reading your reviews. Based in on my past field of work focused on children and adolescents in a therapeutic context, I would suggest that the author is the one who is treating these subjects shallowly and her own character unsympathetically. Many teens do seem self-obsessed and to believe that the world is happening to them and not to everyone else. This is developmentally normal, if not desirable to adults. Many young girls, just hitting puberty and forming their sexual ideas of self, are indeed overly concerned with their looks because it is what they are told, implicitly and explicitly, marks them out as valuable by the “tribe” of high school and indeed in the wider world. As a society, we are working to change this, but it hasn’t changed all that much if the hundreds of girls and young women I’ve treated in therapy are anything to go by.

    These kids are fighting for survival, in their own way, no less seriously than anyone else. When they fail, they are far more likely to entertain ideas of suicide or take to self harming. The way they act might look and sound ridiculous from the outside, but it is deadly serious. Also, the mother saying “you sound homophobic” is absurd and completely disconnected from reality. A teen’s idea of homosexuality in general is a separate thing from finding out one’s father is gay — especially at this crucial time of a girl figuring out her sexual self-identity. It’s ridiculous to think the girl is just supposed to go “oh okay that is totally cool!” and get on with her life. In my experience, nearly all kids do come to terms with a parent’s disclosing a different sexuality from what had been expressed formerly, but these things require a transition that is not always smooth.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise about this. I agree entirely that the characterisation of this girl is unsympathetic and shallow, and what you say about how the story depicts the reaction to the father’s coming out fits with my own observation of a very similar situation. One doesn’t need to be homophobic for friends and family to feel a sense of loss in a situation like that. In that case, the father handled it better than I could ever have imagined, and the family held a church service of reconciliation and healing, but still, it wasn’t easy for anyone. I have no doubt that it would take more courage than a 14 year old girl like this character might reasonably be expected to have, given what we know about the ‘tribe’, and that the author ought to have recognised that an intelligent parent would have been in touch with the school to organise support and to arrange counselling.
      I find myself getting cross with authors who develop stories like this without thinking things through. I can see only too clearly that even with good intentions and careful handling a class discussion could degenerate into hurtful things being said in front of kids who haven’t disclosed what’s going on in their lives. I dread, I really do, this plebiscite that’s proposed, it has the potential to do so much harm…

  3. Thanks for this interesting review Lisa. I haven’t heard of this book (or author) at all before now. It certainly is a catchy title, as books inevitably are now. I appreciate your comments about the shallowness of Ashley but can see how difficult it would be for a teenager to cope not only with the breakup of the family and her parents, but also to try to come to terms with the change in her father’s sexuality (not a subject anyone particularly wants to think about really) at a time when not being “normal” can be highly distressing and embarrassing. The premise of the book does sound intriguing, even if the execution is left a little lacking.

  4. Love this review, Lisa, Especially when you say ,’how does an obviously intelligent parent come to terms with having a child who is as thick as two planks and shallow into the bargain?’

    • Hi Glenice:)
      Well, there are all kinds of reasons why parents might feel alienated from their children and disappointed and puzzled by them, and this is one of those reasons. With today’s parents being so success and achievement orientated, and suffused with guilt if they aren’t doing the parenting properly, I reckon this is a topic that could make a great book.
      But not at YA level, I mean treated in an adult way, from the adult’s PoV and not necessarily resulting in happy acceptance. It would take skill because Australians are not comfortable with intellectual achievement and like to bring down tall poppies.


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