Meet Ambrose – a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. When bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich, Ambrose is philosophical. Irene, however, is not, and decides that Ambrose will take correspondence classes from home.
Home is the basement apartment in a house owned by a kindly Greek couple. Surely Ambrose will be safe here. But unbeknownst to his mother, Ambrose strikes up an unlikely one-way friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, based on the only thing they have in common: a love of Scrabble. Ambrose learned to play with his mother at the kitchen table. Cosmo learned to play in prison. When Ambrose convinces the reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club, a small deception mushrooms and they both find much more than they bargained for, from run-ins with lowlifes to high romance.
When I reviewed Susin Nielsen’s last book, We Are All Made of Molecules, I was struck by the voice of the main character. It was bold, direct and forthright, and the voice of Ambrose here skews a similar path. After a pretty startling start here, the reader gets a picture of a boy with basically no friends and not a lot going for him other than a sunny disposition and an interest in Scrabble. The book traces his journey from here to someone who positively influences those who he meets and his own development is satisfying to read also.
The style of writing allows Susin Nielsen to be quite cutting in describing characters, like Ambrose’s mother, Irene, who is described as being quite paranoid and insecure.
‘But in case I’m painting my mom to be a nutcase, she isn’t. At least not so much.’
Because of this directness, which is no way mean-spirited, you grow to like the character of Ambrose almost immediately and empathise with his situation as a kid who is bullied and has low enough self-esteem.
The other main character apart from Ambrose and his Mom is Cosmo. Nielsen has done a terrific job here in matching up two unlikely characters to build a friendship upon, both of them rubbing the other up the wrong way as much as actually getting on with each other. What starts as a friendship based on both of them using each other for their own means turns into a proper caring friendship.
The plot itself stems from this friendship and there are a myriad of smaller star characters throughout, a cast of oddballs and misfits, and the book celebrates them as being that, which is to be lauded. Through the eyes of Ambrose, we learn the practice of not judging a book by its cover. He manages to see the good in everyone and because of it, helps others to be good. It’s a positive message to take from the book and makes for an enjoyable read. Next up from Susin Nielsen seems to be somewhat of an about turn, with characters focused on cynicism for a start, which should be interesting!