Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

I saw Simone Elkeles at a book signing yesterday for Chain Reaction, the third (and last?) book in the Perfect Chemistry series. She's lively and engaging as a speaker and she's enthusiastic about sharing her book writing experience. I figured it's the perfect time to share a review of her first book in the series:

Title: Perfect Chemistry
Author: Simone Elkeles
Genre: YA Contemporary Romance
Published: 2011

It's easy to see why Perfect Chemistry won a 2011 RITA award from the Romance Writer's of America in the YA categrogy. Despite a dozen cliches - good girl meets bad boy, initial friction, a bet made by the bad boy to prove he can hook up with the good girl, inevitable crush leading to romance - this story managed to transcend the typical stereotypes with enough unique details and an engaging romance.

Think of this like the Step Up movie franchise. There's a reason the movies keep churning out with a rotating cast of interchangable characters. If you like dance movies and a glimpse into urban life with a side of romance, you get exactly that. Know what to expect with Perfect Chemistry and it will deliver.

Brittany is a popular student from the wealthy side of town who strives to attain perfection to please her family and friends. Alex is a gang member from the town's poorer south side who runs with the gang only to protect his family. Brittany's secret is her mentally and physically handicapped sister who Brittany cares for and fiercely guards from ridicule from those she feels would not understand. Her mother is a shallow woman, and when her dad is physically present he is emotionally vacant. Alex's secret is he's only putting on a game face with the gang since he'd rather go to college and escape a world of drugs, guns and theft. The two are paired together in chemistry class. They hate each other, but of course, they end up seeing there's more behind the facade.

What I liked about the story was alternating points of view. Reading Alex's view of the world helped frame the reality of gang life, even if some of the scenarios seemed more out of a movie than real life. I also appreciated a look into the life of caring for a disabled sibling, which I felt went a step beyond a lot of stories that reach to create depth in initially one-dimensional characters. Mexican culture is shared within Alex's story with a lot of Spanglish thrown around. Having attended a diverse high school myself, I know self-segregation by race and class is common, but I felt the division here was a little too much at times. Interacial dating is not that shocking anymore. In this story it was likely more about a popular rich girl dating a poor gang member rather than a white girl and a Mexican. But I'm not complaining too much because I devoured this in a matter of days and felt a connection with both main characters.

I would suggest Perfect Chemistry for older teens since there are a lot of references to drugs, crime, sex etc. All of these concepts are examined and consequences discussed or shown. I can see it as an appealing story for younger readers especially considering the diversity.

As a side note from Simone's live talk, she said the story was rejected by a publisher initially because that publishing house had already put out a book with a Mexican character that year. Isn't it sad to hear? Even though the books were totally different and the characters not alike at all, it was considered too much to publish two books in a year with Mexican characters. I see chatter online about how YA fiction is whitewashed. Maybe it's not that writers aren't putting multi-racial characters forward, but publishing houses are operating under an archaic mindset that's holding us all back.

Not cool, publishers! Look how well Perfect Chemistry sells! Simone Elkeles is an NYT bestselling author thanks to the series.

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