Perfect Chemistry: my first teen romance

Perfect Chemistry
Simone Elkeles, 2009

Synopsis: Senior year has begun. Brittany is a seemingly perfect, white cheerleader from an upper class neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago. Alex Fuentes is a hot, tattooed mexicano gang member from the South Side who is assigned to be Brittany’s partner in chemistry class. Fuentes accepts a bet that he can have sex with Brittany by Thanksgiving, but they end up falling in love. Alex learns that Brittany’s life is not as perfect as it seems, and Brittany tries to get Alex out of the Bloods and into college.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it is full of stereotypes. The main plot arc sees Brittany “saving” Alex–a tired trope that makes me queasy (The white chemistry teacher is also a major inspiration for Alex, as in the movie Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer). Also, the white girl’s struggles seem to pale in comparison to the latino boy’s, and aren’t given nearly as much detail as the plot unfolds. Brittany’s secrets have to do with an overly-anxious mother and a sister with cerebral palsy, whereas Alex’s sectrets have to do with keeping up his gang status, keeping his younger brothers from entering the Bloods, and mourning the death of his father. Alex’s family is portrayed in the typical way, particularly during a wedding scene–their poverty can’t stop them from being close-knit and happy. The minor latino/a characters and the Spanish phrases peppered throughout the text seem awkward and unnatural. The epilogue is syrupy sweet and unrealistic. Are stereotypical character portrayals and trite happy endings just par for the course in any romance novel?

Yet, the main characters are also likeable. Elkeles does a nice job of getting underneath the “fronts” each character obsessively presents to the world: Brittany must date the football captain, get all “A”s, and wear just the right designer clothes, and Alex must put on a tough, machismo exterior that keeps people away and makes it appear that he does not care about school. So the stereotypes do begin to dissolve a bit as the plot deepens. And the falling in love of Alex and Brittany is gradual, spirited, playful, and fun to read. The sex scenes are somewhat realistic and tastefully written.

This book enjoys major circulation amongst students of color–including many boys–at Brighton High School. This may have a lot to do with the alternating chapter format–Brittney and Alex each narrate 50% of the book. Since a readable romance novel that appeals to both sexes in an urban school is very rare, I’d give it a thumbs up.


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