I admit it: I have a type. I like bad boys with kind hearts. Stories that feature these guys (and I’ve read a lot of them) fill in those ticky boxes faster than you can say smoldering eyes and tattoos. You’d think by now I’d be over it, but clearly not. I devoured Simone Elkeles YA novel Perfect Chemistry in one sitting.
Brittany Ellis is eighteen and just beginning her senior year of high school in a Chicago suburb. She’s pretty and popular, captain of the cheerleading team, dating the hunky high school quarterback. She lives in a huge house on the right side of town.
Everyone knows I’m perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it’s a complete lie, I’ve worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.
Alejandro “Alex” Fuentes is also eighteen and also in his senior year, but his life is vastly different from Brittany’s. For one thing, he comes from the wrong side of the tracks. For another, he’s a gang banger.
Senior year. I should be proud I’ll be the first family member in the Fuentes household to graduate high school. But after graduation, real life will start. College is just a dream. Senior year for me is like a retirement party for a sixty-five-year-old. You know you can do more, but everyone expects you to quit.
The interesting thing about both of these characters is that what the reader sees on the surface is only part of their story. The alternating first person points of view allows us a glimpse into lives which are much more than what they initially appear. Brittany and Alex would have no reason to ever interact. In fact on the first morning of school, Brittany’s reaction at almost hitting Alex while trying to nab a parking spot pretty much says it all:
Alex takes a step toward my car. My instincts tell me to abandon my car and flee, as if I was stuck on railroad tracks with a train heading straight for me….
But Brittany is no shrinking violet and when, later that day, she’s paired with Alex for a year-long chemistry project, she gives as good as she gets. So, naturally, sparks fly.
Perfect Chemistry is a love story, true, but it is also a story about making choices, standing up for what you believe in, and breaking down those stereotypes which often hold us prisoner. Brittany and Alex are well-written characters, believable and relateable. I really wanted things to work out for them.
Back in the 70s there was a movie very similar to this book. It’s cheesy now because frankly, blue-eyed Robby Benson was never going to make a very convincing “Chicano”. Still, it has similar themes. In case you have some time to kill, check out Walk Proud.