Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Guest review by Charlie Morris
Perfect Chemistry is the story of Britney Ellis, the archetypal airhead; blonde-haired, blue-eyed, cheerleading, BMW-driving, American rich girl. At her school in suburban Chicago, Britney and friends are admired, envied as well as despised in equal measure by the other students.

Alex Fuentes is at the same school, but that is where the similarities to Britney end. Alex is a Mexican American tattooed Latino Blood gang member, a motorbike riding bad boy outcast from the majority of the school as well as being held in low regard by most of his teachers.

Britney and Alex are worlds apart, but when they are forced by their science teacher to become lab project partners sparks begin to fly as they discover that outward appearances can be deceptive. The story centres on exploring whether their feelings for each other will be enough to overcome their own and others prejudices in a world completely unforgiving of their relationship.

Told in alternate chapters in the first person by Britney and Alex we slowly learn that Britney although materially privileged has her problems. Her older sister is severely disabled and living at home. Britney is often her main carer, their mother and father unable to cope, wrapped up in their own busy lives. Britney has taken on adult responsibilities and is constantly bowing to the parental pressure of maintaining her ‘perfect’ image at the cost of her own happiness.

Despite his hard-man exterior Alex also has responsibilities to his family. He became a gang member to protect his mother and two younger brothers after his father was killed in gang violence. He has paid a high price for this with most of the school afraid of him and the gang forcing him into a life of crime when secretly he would like to go to college even though it seems totally out of the question.

Perfect Chemistry confounds expectations as stereotypes are quickly challenged when both Alex and Britney are revealed to have more to them than first meets the eye. Despite the love story plot being at times a little unrealistic the characters are well developed and engaging throughout.

Most interestingly the book provides a well-researched background into the difficulties experienced by Mexicans living in suburban America in its frank portrayal of racial tension and division in American schools, although the book slightly suffers from having an author who is not herself Mexican evident as the elements of the book written from Britney’s perspective looking in on Alex’s life have a stronger voice than those when Alex himself is speaking.

Perfect Chemistry is aimed at an older teen audience and is adult in content with references to sex, drug taking and violence although these are all relevant to plot development and give the book a more realistic edge. Despite this Perfect Chemistry is at times a little too saccharin-sweet and disappointingly defaults to a slightly contrived, formulaic ‘happy ending’.

Perfect Chemistry will attract a primarily romance-interest reader, especially due to its cover featuring the Alex and Britney characters embracing, however it does deserve a wider readership as it has interesting characterisation to offer for UK teen readers as a story of racial division in modern America.

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