At Fairfield High School, in the suburbs of Chicago, there are two disparate social classes, the wealthy white kids from the north side and the poor Hispanic kids from the south side, and the two never mingle. When North Sider and head cheerleader, Brittany Ellis, and South Sider and gang member, Alex Fuentes, are paired up by their chemistry teacher to work on a project together, they're like oil and water. Each of them enters into the partnership with preconceived notions of what the other one is like, but neither could be further from the truth. As they slowly start coming to know each other, Alex finds a vulnerable girl in Brittany whose life is anything but the perfect mask she wears each day, while Brittany discovers that Alex's tough gangbanger persona hides a heart of gold. As they discover that they share far more in common than they ever dreamed possible, a different sort of chemistry begins to take hold as they gradually fall in love. But Brittany is destined for college while Alex's life path was set the moment he made the decision to join the gang to protect his family. Can they find a way to be together when the odds seem to be stacked against them?
Perfect Chemistry has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while. After hearing a lot of good things about it, I've very much been looking forward to reading it, and it definitely didn't disappoint. This is a tale of young lovers from completely opposite sides of the track that has the vibe of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet, except with a happy ending. In this story, both of our protagonists are seniors at Fairfield High School, which has a mixture of kids from two disparate social classes, the wealthy, mostly white kids from the north side and the poor, mostly Hispanic kids from the south side. But despite their outward differences, they are more alike than they might seem as first glance with each of them putting on a facade each day to hide who they really are inside. Our heroine, Brittany, is a lily white rich girl, who tries to project an air of perfection to cover up for a less-than-perfect home life, while Alex tries to be the tough gangbanger while hiding his kind heart of gold. These two are paired up by their chemistry teacher to work on a term project together, and in the process, they start to learn that outward appearances can sometimes be deceiving as they gradually get to know each other and fall in love.
Brittany may have everything she wants from a material perspective, but her home life is less-than-stellar. Her father always seems to be working and out of touch with the family, while her mother is more concerned with outward appearances than with paying attention to her family's real needs. Then there's her sister, who's disabled. Brittany loves her sister dearly and doesn't mind helping take care of her, but at the same time, she feels like she needs to be perfect to make up for the older sibling who'll never be "normal." As such, she spends most of her time and energy trying to earn good grades, never getting in trouble at school, being the captain of the pom squad, and generally staying tightly in control of every aspect of her life. She even has the "perfect" boyfriend, but in spite of them being a couple for two years, she can't help feeling like something is missing from their relationship. Her carefully orchestrated world slowly comes crashing down when she's paired with Alex in chemistry class. He's everything she despises, or so she thinks, until she gets to know him. Then she finds hidden depths in him that give her a whole new perspective and that make her slowly start to open up to this bad boy who's so much more than he seems. Brittany may be wealthy but she's not a snob, especially as she gets to know Alex and some of his friends from the south side. She's the best sister a girl could ever wish for, and I love how sweet, kind, and patient she is with Shelley. It would be easy to peg her as a mean girl given her first moments with Alex, but her interactions with Shelley not long afterward prove that she's anything but. I enjoyed watching Brittany's metamorphosis from someone who always has to be in control to a girl who learns to be more open and free.
Alex's dad was murdered in front of him when he was only six years old, and he was so traumatized by the event, he can't recall who the perpetrator was. As the oldest of three brothers, he sees himself as the man of the house and responsible for protecting and caring for his mom and siblings. Knowing his dad was a gang member, he didn't really want to go down that path, but when it seemed like it was the only way to keep his family safe, he agreed to be jumped in. Now he's stuck, wishing his life could be different, but believing it's the only path he can take. When he gets paired with Brittany, Alex despises her as much she does him, because he only sees her as a privileged, white girl who has everything he never will. Not caring anything about her at first, he makes a bet with his friends that he can get into her pants before Thanksgiving, but as he slowly gets to know her and sees the parts of herself that she hides from the world, he finds himself caring about her more than he wants to. As he gradually falls in love with her, it scares him, because his world is a rough and dangerous one for a naive girl like Brittany. Alex is one of those bad boys that most romance readers - myself included - can't help falling for. He has sympathetic reasons for being in the gang, and he draws a moral line at what he will and won't do for them. He has a good heart and he's a smart kid, too, who has the potential to be whatever he wants to be, but feels shackled by the life that was handed to him. I have to give him major props, though, for turning over a new leaf even though it wasn't an easy path to take.
Perfect Chemistry is generally categorized as young adult romance, although I suppose new adult would also be a valid designation as well since both Alex and Brittany are eighteen. However, since they're both still in high school, YA seems like the more pertinent category, so I'll address the potentially objectionable content of which there's quite a bit. Since Alex is in a gang, there are depictions of gang violence, including a drive-by shooting, beatings (one of which was pretty brutal), and two characters getting shot, one fatally. Despite this, I'd say that the violence was only moderately descriptive. There's a fair bit of language, including several uses of the f-word. Alex and Brittany drink wine and beer with their friends one night, with both of them getting drunk. That same night Alex also smokes a joint, and he regularly smokes cigarettes. Although Alex has tried to take a stand against personally making drug and arms deals, this type of activity takes place as part of gang life. All of the kids openly discuss sex, occasionally in a rather crude way. The sexual tension runs high all the way around, both between Alex and Brittany and with their friends. Before they get together, Brittany engages in a heavy petting session with her boyfriend that nearly leads to sex, and Alex goes skinny-dipping with an ex that leads to a heavy make-out session as well. Alex and Brittany engage in some pretty intense kissing, too, and they do eventually make love. It's a sweet, tastefully sensual scene that's rendered with mild, almost euphemistic language with few details. I have to give them credit, though, for having a mature discussion about their sexual histories and for using protection, which is more than I often see in adult romances. However, given the volume of mature content, I'd probably only recommend the book for older teens of about sixteen and up, who wouldn't be bothered by anything I mentioned.
Perfect Chemistry is one of those rare romances that I found to be both sweet and edgy, which was a great combination for me. Normally I'm not a reader who seeks out enemies-to-lovers romances, because I often have a hard time believing that two people who can't stand each other could fall in love. But this one really hit the spot, absolutely convincing me of Alex and Brittany's rightness for one another. They may come from opposite sides of the tracks, but they have enough in common to make a relationship work. They also find ways to respect and love each other despite their differences. This book definitely engaged me throughout and kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering how these two could possibly overcome all the obstacles in their way. It wasn't an easy path to get there, but it was worth it in the end. I absolutely loved these characters and their story and couldn't wait to get back to it each time I had to put it down. Now I'm eagerly looking forward to reading the two follow-up novels in the series to find out what happens for Alex's two younger brothers, as well as checking out Simone Elkeles's other work.
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