Thursday, August 27, 2009

Perfect Chemistry

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's one of my favorite books of the year.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Alix said...

I loved this one too, such a great romance.

Intrigued that there is a sequel because things seemed to be wrapped up pretty well at the end.

tanita✿davis said...

OOh, this sounds tasty. My only objection is the usual one -- could he not have been something, eh, nonviolent? Or non-clich├ęd? I mean, I'm loving that a Mexican guy gets put into a novel, don't get me wrong, but maybe his Dad could be in a Mariachi band or something? Why must our only choices be gang-banger and/or field laborer? I can't think of a novel I've read that didn't have a Mexican person portrayed with a lowrider car and gang-banging and/or a field not in the background.

Not that I'm objecting to the romance or the book or the cover. It's lovely. Just... wistful thinking.

Tammy Blackwell said...

I also loved this book. I thought it did an excellent job of taking a very well known story line (girl falls for guy from the "wrong side of the tracks") and keeping it interesting. I'm a little nervous about the sequel though. Like Alexa, I thought this one wrapped everything up nicely.

Susan said...

I also loved this book--thank you for reminding me about it. I think romance, along with other genre fiction sometimes gets the short shrift. I am glad to hear that there is a sequel on the way, and second the accolades for Elkeles who sent me a very nice e-mail for my enthusiasm in sharing this book with others.

Melissa said...

This has been on my TBR pile forever, and I'd almost forgotten about it. You've given me the push to dig it out again...

Janssen said...

Oh, how I loved this book. Just so funny and romantic and smart, too, which I really didn't expect.

Angiegirl said...

Superb review, Liz. I thought this book was hella fun and passed it on as much as I could. What a good read it is. And thanks for the heads up on the sequel! Can't wait.

Liz B said...

regarding the sequel: what i suspect (but did not do much googling for) is that it's a companion and won't be strictly about brittany & alex. there seemed to be a few loose threads with alex's story (IMHO); i really wanted another alex chapter; so I'm thinking, perhaps, some of their friends?

tanita, I hear you; to confess, I did go in with mixed feelings about just that issue. that said, I had heard Simone speak so was aware that she had done research, based this on a local town's dynamics, spoken with various people, etc. given the plot (and trying to not be spoilery), I think Alex's father had to be in the gang. first, as a reader, it was a bit shocking to realize that & i figure that revealed my own biases (one minute Alex is talking about his great dad, the next says oh yeah in the gang); second, the murder of his father is important to the plot and it would not have worked so well if his father was doing something else; and third, part of the book (without being messagey) is the appeal of gangs in terms of being a quasi-family for members, and so again, alex's father's involvement ties into this - that it's not just young teens looking for trouble, it's young teens whose role models are involved.

Elkeles did a great job of showing other members of Alex's family in positive situations (including a family wedding) as well as Alex's own struggle on how to protect his family / break the cycle / have a future that is ... well, I cannot tell, it would be a spoiler!

Anonymous said...

Great post and review!
I thought this was an outstanding YA book - possibly the best I've ever read, certainly the best I've read in years.
I'm really looking forward to more books by this author.

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

great review - thank you!

my question: how hot is HOT?

Or, would you recommend this to 7th or 8th graders? Or save it for high school?

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the "hot" factor is mostly the sexual chemistry, but there is sex and desire and stuff like the "F-word" and other profanity that some parents and/or schools might find offending. Since it's about high school seniors and gang violence some might feel its better suited for 16 years and up.
That said, I think its the best YA book I've read in years and I think most teens will like it.

Liz B said...

I'd put this down as more High School than middle school for the reasons MsMoonlight says; not so much the sex (it IS there, but not graphic) but the language (not as much F's as Nick & Nora, but still there) & violence (the gang violence is not downplayed). Obviously, there will be 7th/8th graders who are mature enough for this book, but in terms of school libraries & booktalking, I'd aim it at HS

Lisa said...

I've added this one to my list, thanks. The cover alone makes me want to read it.

Danielle said...

The sequel is about Alex's brother, Carlos when he returns from Mexico, and he falls for another white girl. Hopefully Alex and Brittany are in there somewhere!

Sarah Jo said...

Great post and review!
I'm really looking forward to more books by this author.

Sarah said...

wow this book is awesome ! i love the story line "girl falls for guy from the wrong side of the tracks", it's interesting. a great book !

veronica said...

I have not read a really great book in awhile. Once I picked this book up, I could not put it down. I thought it was a great read and I recommend it to everyone. This is now one of my favorite books. I liked how it showed that two different people can come together and act civilized. It showed to not judge people on what they,but for who they truly are on the inside. I loved this book and hope everyone else does to.

jannifer said...

"Perfect Chemistry": AMAZING! I can honestly say this is currently my favorite book ever. So much romance. I know this sounds weird, but for those of you who can relate you'll know what I'm talking about, Alex is freaking sexy in this book.