Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles
2008, Walker Books for Young Readers
When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created “perfect” life is about to unravel before her eyes. She’s forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, and he is about to threaten everything she's worked so hard for—her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the secret that her home life is anything but perfect. Alex is a bad boy and he knows it. So when he makes a bet with his friends to lure Brittany into his life, he thinks nothing of it. But soon Alex realizes Brittany is a real person with real problems, and suddenly the bet he made in arrogance turns into something much more.
In a passionate story about looking beneath the surface, Simone Elkeles breaks through the stereotypes and barriers that threaten to keep Brittany and Alex apart. (courtesy of Goodreads)
She's been living in her uptown world
I bet she never had an back street guy..."
Perfect Chemistry is a story that's been told time and time again, from Grease to Billy Joel. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a new take on the classic tale can't be fresh and interesting. Perfect Chemistry was an entrancing, page-turning romance.
Brittany Ellis and Alex Fuentes are two people you'd never expect to get along. Brittany is the girl with everything - looks, money, grades, popularity. Alex is poor, stand-offish, and a gang member. Much to their horror, their chemistry teacher makes them partners for their senior year. They soon learn that there's more to each person than it appears on the surface. I think it's the fact that both of have secret inner lives that attracts them to one another. Brittany doesn't really want to be perfect; she chafes under her mother's pressure. She cares most about her sister with cerebral palsy. Alex doesn't like being a gang member. He wants to succeed in life - professionally and personally. First and foremost though, he wants to protect his family.
I love the style of this book. It's told in short chapters alternating character. Elkeles creates distinct voices for Brittany and Alex, but both seem entirely in keeping with their characters. Alex's voice is particularly interesting. Dialogue is interspersed with Spanish. His life of poverty and violence seems very realistic. I particularly loved the portrayal of Shelly, Brittany's sister. There aren't nearly enough good portrayals of mentally disabled characters in YA lit. Through Brittany's eyes we see not only Shelly's disabilities, but also her fun, vibrant personality. Alex and Brittany's relationship does develop quickly but not instantaneously. Each page of the book was another step that brought them closer together; there wasn't just one magic falling in love moment. It seemed much more realistic than many books.
I have a few quibbles about the story. Primarily, I thought sex was too important to the story. I liked how Brittany didn't want to have sex until it felt special and right. But the book still makes sex seem like the most important part of a relationship - the pinnacle. I'm not opposed to sexuality in YA lit, but I don't think it should be glorified as the end-all, be-all. But then again, YA lit isn't meant to be moralistic tales and the attitude toward sex reflects how many teens feel.
*Minor Spoilers* - Highlight to read
Several reviews I've read don't like the ending; many said things were just wrapped up too neatly. I agree, but I really liked how Brittany and Alex's relationship ends up. I'm a sucker for a happy ending. I did not like how Brittany and her parents settled out their issues. It just seemed too fake and TV movie-ish for me.
All in all, an excellent book with two likeable characters. I cheered for Brittany and Alex from the first to the last page.
Rating: 3.5 / 5