Book Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

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Title: Perfect Chemistry
Author: Simone Elkeles
Published: 2008
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis: A fresh, urban twist on the classic tale of star-crossed lovers.
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.

My Rating: Red-StarRed-Star1/2

I think when relating to this book I’m a complex person to have an impartial opinion on it because I am a Hispanic American woman and I grew up in a pretty segregated High School, I know how drug dealers talk, I know how gangs work because these have been intimate aspects of my young life. With that in mind, please feel free to read my very biased review of this YA adult.

First, the good –  I applaud Elkeles for having an actual minority family as the main in this story/series. Most YA books feature two Caucasian characters, that is unfortunately the norm and it’s refreshing to see the richness the addition of a culture can bring to a novel most especially a YA novel. I also loved that Brittany’s sister was handicapped and it was actually addressed despite me feeling that halfway through the book that was placed in the back burner but it was there and again, something not often talked about in YA novels despite it being a reality for many teens who have handicapped siblings. These aspects made me add a star and a half, otherwise I would have straight out hated this book.

I think my problem with this book is how… (and really we’re talking YA fiction here) improbable and how fake this entire scenario played out.

Our main character Alex Fuentes is the oldest of 3 brothers, he’s in a gang (because of course he is), he’s a bad boy (laughably on purpose) and he enters a bet to seduce the High School blonde princess who he hates and is his Chemistry partner.

The other main is Brittany, blonde, beautiful, hot body, and perfect on the outside but inside her home is a mess. The more I think of how unsatisfied I was with the resolution of her home problems the angrier I get. Elkeles raises serious issues in this novel and without doubt she resolves them in such a superficial way that it left me legitimately angry. Brittany has a mother who wins the award of worst mom of the year yet Elkeles explains her behavior in one sentence when she tells Brittany that she didn’t like people to have pity on her. Despite Elkeles setting up for a rich and dark situation with Mom being absent as her handicapped daughter is ill-cared for at the hands of a new caretaker leaving an 18 year old to act as the adult. Mom, I felt, got a free pass because she was essentially embarrassed. Also, can we talk about Dad because I still have no idea who Dad even is… very unsatisfied with that entire situation.

In the Fuentes household we start in a good foot getting a glimpse into Alex’s slightly better home life with a Mom who cares for her sons yet is OK with Alex being in a gang and having no intention of going to college. I felt, and again keep in mind that I grew up like Alex did, that this was rather insulting. Believe it or not, Hispanic moms are as adamant as any other mom for their kids to succeed and not have to work the shitty jobs to make ends meet. The other Hispanic parent we had was the mention of Paco’s dad who apparently was physically abusive. This line of thought was what kept bothering me about this novel and the portrayal brought on by the narrative. The Brittany vs Carmen scenario is where it’s very apparent. Brittany is soft, beautiful and in touch with her feelings – she cries and is loyal to Alex. Carmen is though, does drugs, cheats on her man, has long red nails and wants to beat Brittany up for going after Alex. At the end there’s zero complexity to Carmen, she embodies the angry-Latina stereotype.

This is a love story and as many (all?) YA contemporary love stories go it cleans up so nicely and in so few pages that I was left rather annoyed. I did find the nature of the gang and the drugs laughable, these things do not happen this way and the scene where Paco brings Brittany to the warehouse where drugs are handled was RIDICULOUS. Utterly ridiculous. I stop and I think how kids reading might even imagine that this is how actual crime takes place and I just shake my head but I don’t think Elkeles wrote this with an informed reader like me in mind, she wrote it to portray a bad situation where a nice girl saves a good-at-heart boy from utter destruction. I think I liked this less than I thought and once more – this is because I found it unbelievable but for other teens who do not have the experiences and knowledge I do they might find it… romantic.

I think I’m laying off YA contemporary for a while, cleanse my soul in some magical realism and horror.

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