Background: I had Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles on my nightstand for months. I was intrigued by it, but somehow always prioritized other things. Recently, however, Liz Burns reviewed it at Tea Cozy. And something in her review (some combination of "This is an AMAZING romance. And H.O.T. There is heat, it is steamy, it is awesome" and "yes...it's one of my favorite books of the year") made it seem like the right thing for a hot summer weekend. I read it in one day, and am glad that I picked it up.
Review: Perfect Chemistry is the perfect title for this book about the powerful attraction between two very different high school seniors. Brittany Ellis is rich, white, and seemingly perfect. She's the head cheerleader, and dates the captain of the football team. She expects to follow in her father's footsteps by attending Northwestern. Alex Fuentes is poor, Latino, and a known troublemaker. He's a member of a gang, and has dated, well, a lot of girls. He expects to follow in his father's footsteps by dying young. Alex and Brittany live in opposite worlds, and each looks down on the other. Assigned to work together as lab partners in chemistry, they bristle, squabble, and, eventually, are drawn together. As with many chemical reactions, the results are dramatic, and change the raw materials forever.
Perfect Chemistry is told in alternating chapters from Alex and Brittany's first-person viewpoints. This allows the reader to see each of them as they appear from the outside, in contrast to what they're like inside. This writing style also lets the reader see clearly how Brittany and Alex are both fundamentally changed through their interactions. They, and many of the supporting characters, are so complex and authentic that they breathe from the page.
Perfect Chemistry is dramatic, multicultural, and steamy. Elkeles offers an inside view of gang life, and doesn't sugar-coat the pressures or the dangers. She also offers a positive view on Mexican-American family life, in some ways, and contrasts that with the life of a family who keep their distance from one another. She excels at writing about physical and emotional attraction, and that way that it can evolve into love. She even throws in a bit of a mystery over who killed Alex's father, several years back. Overall, though, what makes Perfect Chemistry stand out for me is how real the characters and setting feel.
I would definitely classify this as a book for high schoolers, rather than middle school kids. I don't think that the mature content is gratuitous - it's part of the story of who Alex and Brittany are, and how and why they are drawn to one another - but it is undoubtedly there. Still, I think that this is a book that's more about love than anything else. Here are a couple of examples:
"For a nanosecond, as I'm staring into those dark eyes, I wonder what it would be like to kiss Alex. My gaze drops to his lips. For less than a nanosecond, I can almost feel them coming closer. Would his lips be hard on mine, or soft? Is he a slow kisser, or hungry and fast like his personality?" (Brittany, Chapter 13)
"Thoughts of being a pirate and stealing her away to my ship race across my mind. Although I'm not a pirate, and she's not my captured princess. We're just two teenagers who hate each other. Okay, so I don't really hate her." (Alex, Chapter 20)
"He touched me as if I was made of glass. He kissed me as if he'd savor it for the rest of his life." (Brittany, Chapter 33)
Definitely swoon-inducing (as is the cover). With the right casting, this could make a great movie. I enjoyed it. I recommend Perfect Chemistry for older teens and adults. While the romantic aspects of the book may appeal more to girls, the gritty realism of Alex's gang life should appeal to boys, too. This one is well worth a look.
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: December 23, 2008
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy, Lost in a Book, Danielle's Book Thoughts, A Passion for Books, The Book Reader, Angieville. And, for a dissenting opinion, see this review at Book Nut.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.