Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles. Walker & Co. 2009.
The Plot: Brittany Ellis. White, rich, all the latest clothes, a brand new car. Alejandro "Alex" Fuentes, Mexican, member of the Latino Blood gang. A chemistry teacher who insists on alphabetical order makes these opposites chemistry partners; but will opposites attract?
The Good: Perfect chemistry? Try perfect romance instead!
Brittany and Alex are real, live, breathing people, as are the supporting characters. I'm in love with all these people!
Brittany Ellis -- rich and spoiled, right? But her outward perfection is a desperate attempt to make everyone believe she is a perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect friend because at home things aren't perfect. She creates a fake life of outward appearances, trusting no one; but she still has truths she holds onto. Brittany loves her sister, who has cerebral palsy, and will do anything to help her sister. Brittany has the strength to know her own heart and mind. Since Perfect Chemistry is told in alternating chapters, first Alex, then Brittany, we see how others see her, and her truth. And yes -- she can be bitchy. And dishonest. But she also is committed to her sister and her family.
Alex Fuentes is what he looks like: a gang member, like his father before him. But what you cannot tell from looking at him: he dreams of college and escape. But if he leaves, who will take care of his mother and younger brothers? If he's in the Latino Blood gang, it means his brothers don't have to be. To protect them, he has created a fake-life, the life Brittany sees, tough talking, ready to fight, carrying guns, committing crimes. But he has a truth: he is committed to his family; and while he knows he can never leave the gang, he does well in school and is a decent, nice guy. Like Brittany, he isn't perfect; he has a temper and can be judgmental.
Alex and Brittany, thrown together by the fate of alphabetical order. As the year goes on, they both begin to see the truth about the other.
This is an AMAZING romance. And H.O.T. There is heat, it is steamy, it is awesome.
The gang life is not glorified. There is bloodshed, deaths, drug deals, arrests. But, the gang members are not vilified; this isn't a message book. It's clear that the gang meets a need; for Alex, it's a way to protect his family. For some of his friends, the gang becomes the family they lack.
Plus, bonus -- this is also a mystery. Alex was six when his father was killed; and Alex is beginning to ask questions, to try to solve his father's murder.
Like I said, this isn't a message book; it's not didactic. But there are some things a reader can take away: do the right thing. Love matters. Life is made of hard choices. But, again -- this is not preachy. There is meaning and depth here.
My only disappointment? I wanted MORE! So I was very psyched to see at the author's website that Rules of Attraction, the sequel, is coming in 2010!
Last note: I moved this up on my TBR pile for a couple of reasons. One, I was looking for more books with covers of people of color, and Alex, who is Mexican, is featured on the cover. Elkeles is not Latino, but from the endnotes she reveals that she carefully researched Alex's world to make it as realistic as possible. Two, I heard Elkeles speak at ALA, and she is TERRIFIC. And funny. And caring. And really, truly believes in teen literacy and in writing books for boys and girls. Seriously -- while, yes, this book IS a Romeo & Juliet romance (and a great romance!), it is also a story full of action. Yes, teenage boys will like it. Also, she has a great website for Perfect Chemistry with a video, and playlists!
And yes...it's one of my favorite books of the year.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy