Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

perfect chemistry simone elkeles Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

Blurb: When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created perfect life is about to unravel before her eyes. Forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, Brittany finds herself having to protect everything shes worked so hard for her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend and, most importantly, the secret that her home life is anything but perfect. Alex is a bad boy and he knows it. So when he makes a bet with his friends to lure Brittany into his life, he thinks nothing of it. But the closer Alex and Brittany get to each other the more they realise that sometimes appearances can be deceptive and that you have to look beneath the surface to discover the truth.

Perfect Chemistry, Simone Elkeles's young adult tale of star-crossed love, takes up the old adage that opposites attract and suggests that such attractions, in fact, may be less to do with the differences per se and more to do with the similarities that lurk beneath apparently divergent exteriors.

Brittany Ellis. Alejandro Fuentes. The names themselves are suggestive enough, but Elkeles deliberately places them as far apart on the social spectrum as possible in order to emphasise the gap we know will be eventually negotiated and bridged. Brittany exemplifies middle-class perfection: blonde, popular, athletic, smart, and decked out in designer clothing. Alex, on the other hand, with his dangerous swagger and gang tattoos, is someone to be feared. The binaries continue as we bounce from one side of the social divide to the other: houses, cars, friends, future aspirations. While they do initially feel little more than archetypes, Elkeles works to bring a great deal of humanity to both characters, and the black and white contrast of their worlds starts to blur little by little until the reader is able to see how one can be transposed into the other's reality.

Despite their vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, Brittany and Alex do share similar aspirations and values. Their fears are also similar: each, in their own way, has expertly constructed a facade, and even a life plan, designed to meet the expectations of their peers and family. Brittany's veneer of perfection is designed to diminish the reality of her sister's disability: her exemplary achievement, she feels, is a form of atonement. She feels that she must somehow live a life equivalent to two people's, with all that this entails. Alex, on the other hand, affects his tough stance as a form of physical protection. His gang-member status is an insurance policy that ensures his family's physical safety, as well as serving to shield his younger brothers from becoming involved in gang-related activity themselves.

While the two initially clash (and to dramatic effect!), it is not necessarily because they dislike each other as individuals. Rather, it's what the other representsthe unknown, the taboothat poses the problem. Elkeles deals with this admirably, positioning Brittany and Alex to slowly begin to negotiate the social and cultural barriers that they've always taken for granted. The implications of being in the 'wrong' neighbourhood or participating in the 'wrong' type of activity are suddenly foregrounded'having never challenged the status quo in such a way before, these issues are new to both of them. Things that are taken for granted by Brittany, such as the expected behaviour in an art gallery, are painful unknowns for Alex, and vice versa.

Perfect Chemistry is, of course, a love story, but this element tends to be fairly understated, with the novel 'simultaneously addressing a number of complex teen issues. For the most part these are dealt with in a thoughtful and realistic manner, although there are times when certain scenes or interactions read a bit didactically, or are clearly inserted for plot purposes. I should note that there are some elements that I find highly problematic, such as how the female characters are perceived or treated by the males throughout the book, and the fact that this largely goes unchallenged. If this book is, as it seems to seek to be,'an accurate reflection of suburban American life, the prevalence and apparent normalisation of these attitudes is highly problematic. Brittanys ex-boyfriend Colin, for example, constantly objectifies women, but is rarely called on it. The bet Alex makes, in which Brittany is the prize, is also difficult to come to terms with as a female reader, and I find myself somewhat angry that this trope seems to appear so frequently throughout films and novels pitched at teens. Similarly, the scene were Alex and Brittany do have sex is almost painful to read given what we know of the characters motivations.

The novel unfortunately also suffers from some pacing issues towards the final third of the book. While Elkeles has worked admirably to build a real-time immediacy in the earlier sections of the book, giving us a day-by-day account of the characters lives that is almost claustrophobic in its intensity, the final third of the book suddenly skips whole months at a time, detracting significantly from the tension that has been thus far achieved. The book is further undermined by a saccharine ending that feels contrived and simplistic after such sincere effort has been made to depict teenage life in a nuanced and realistic manner.

In all, though, Perfect Chemistry is a skilfully written novel with characters its difficult not to identify with. Elkeles has an excellent ear for dialogue, and does a great job of differentiating her characters based using a combination of speech and the subtle'idiosyncrasies she affords them. She writes with warmth and understanding about teenagers, but doesnt patronise, or shy from dealing with controversial themes and issuesbecause, after all, these are the issues that teens, to varying degrees, are dealing with on a daily basis.

200px 3.5 stars.svg  Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

With thanks to Simon and Schuster Australia for the review copy.

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