Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless.
Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink.
Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.
They are complete opposites. And yet, they have one thing in common: they—like everyone else—are made of molecules. – Goodreads
This is a story about the making of a family. It starts with Stewart, a 13-year-old whose mother recently passed away. He’s brilliant, but small for his age. He has a hard time socially, even though he is very perceptive and has a huge amount of love for his family. I guess you’d call him naïve – he really does see good (or the potential for it) in everyone, and wants to help everyone around him find happiness, whether they deserve it or not.
Stewart’s father is dating a colleague who has a 14-year-old daughter named Ashley. Unlike Stewart, Ashley is the most popular and pretty girl in her grade (though she’s somewhat wanting in the brains department).
When Stewart’s dad and Ashley’s mom decide to move in together, it doesn’t turn out to be the instant blend the two adults hoped. Ashley resents the interlopers, and Stewart and his dad have a hard time fitting in to their new home’s minimalist aesthetic and remembering not to leave their socks lying around the living room. It’s challenging, to say the least.
The book switches perspectives between Stewart and Ashley, which is a brilliant juxtaposition since these two characters couldn’t be more different. To say they have different experiences of high school is an understatement, since they exist on opposite ends of the social spectrum.
I don’t want to give away the details of the plot, because it really is a joy to discover for yourself. What I will say is that it deals with a lot of capital “I” Issues – both at school and at home. One thing that really stood out to me was the authenticity of the teenaged voices. I think there can be a temptation for authors to create teenagers who are much more mature than their age. By which I mean that the author removes some of the impulsiveness and poor decision making, moralizes some of the tricky situations or just gives their characters way more insight than any teenager realistically possesses. And that’s fine – as an adult reader of YA, I often appreciate it. But it does require suspension of disbelief, because you know it’s not how real teenagers think or behave. This book managed to strike the perfect balance between being appealing to readers my age and still feeling like these kids really were kids.
This was particularly evident when it came to the difficult social situations each had to face. Of course these situations were different – Stewart had to deal with being picked on because of his size and being a “nerd” while Ashley had to deal with pressure to do anything to fit in – even if it made her uncomfortable or put her in a dangerous situation. Different types of social pressure, both very difficult to navigate with a mere 13 or 14 years of brains and life experience.
I loved how Nielsen dealt with the problems faced by these two. I loved that Nielsen did not try to sugar coat the fact that sometimes you do need to fight dirty, that the moral high ground and knowing you’re in the right isn’t going to get you through high school. Sometimes it feels really great to give someone a dose of their own medicine, and sometimes they deserve it.
I was also really impressed with the parental characters. So many YA books just ignore parents altogether or conveniently write them out when they want to allow the plot to progress, and this always feels unrealistic to me. Not in this book. The parents were present and involved in their kids’ lives, but Nielsen also allowed them to have their own separate lives as well. I also loved that she gave these two great adult role models and support, but also let them figure out their problems on their own.
While I was reading this book, I was taken right back to high school – I remembered the emotions, the humiliations, the excitement of a cute boy talking to you and the stomach flip of going back to school and facing people you know are going to make it hell in one way or another. I went to three different high schools, but one thing never changed: being a teenager is tough.
As you can tell, I thought this book was fantastic. Not only is the story well-paced and gripping, but the characters are excellently developed and there are some really funny touches (like how Stewart’s cat is called Schrödinger or how Ashley constantly messes up words – unconstipated for emancipated, joie de beaver instead of joie de vivre). If I were a parent, this is definitely a book I’d give to my kids when they hit high school, and one that I think represents some important conflicts most kids will encounter. And while it’s not a how-to on getting through it, it does show the value of creativity, teamwork, courage and second chances.
Author: Susin Nielsen
Published By: Tundra Books
Released: May 12, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Family
Date Read: May 11-13, 2015