Book Review: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

I want to preface this review now with my opinion is purely that: my opinion!

Farfield is a town divided between the North and the South.

On North side is the American Ellis family. Daughter Brittany appears for all the world the perfect all-American girl. Blonde hair, designer clothes, head cheerleader and dating a footballer. But it is all a façade. At home, things are not perfect with a often absent father, a mother on the edge and an older disabled sister who uses a wheelchair.

On the South side is the Mexican Fuentes family. Alex lives with his hard-working mother and brothers Carlos and Luis. To the outside world, Alex is THE bad boy, playing up his Latino Blood gang membership however this is Alex’s own mask. He is intelligent and could go far, if he was able to get out of the gang and still protect his family.

When Brittany and Alex are put together for a Chemistry project, sparks fly and the appearances that each of them put on begin to slip…

I will say it now. This book is so bad it’s good. Before I go on to why it’s so bad, I want to point out the good elements that actually made me read this cover to cover.

Elkeles uses the first person narration of each character to give both sides of the story and show the world of Farfield through the characters eyes very vividly. She shows the extreme differences in the fictional town as well as the big differences in the  characters worlds. But within that is also the juxtaposition that actually the characters are very similar. They have their family troubles whether caused by internal or external forces and each character must put on an act.

Because of the first person perspective, the readers gain a real insight on the characters instead of having their views on characters heavily influenced by others. This book definitely would not have worked as well if the story had been told from the third person.

On the subject of worlds, Elkeles  has really shown a strong and colourful understanding of Mexican culture, the protective nature of families and the close-knit community, minus the gang part. The research she put into the book really shows and something to be praised. (I don’t know if all the Spanish is correct as my own is very limited so I can’t really say if it is right).

The book also shows a real, positive representation of a person with disability. The sisterly bond between Brittany and Shelley, her sister, is touching and lovingly portrayed. The book also shows the struggles of a modern family with a disabled child. The act put on by Brittany’s parents to hide Shelley as well as the pressure they place on Brittany to do the same is very interesting and really makes the reader invest in this characters, wanting to see the sisters triumph against their parents’ act and no longer have to hide from the world.

Elkeles could have portrayed the character in a very dim light, showing the character as stupid and being completely unable to understand anything but instead it is a bright light that is put on Shelley, showing her as intelligent and perfectly able to make her own informed choices on matters about her.  The only other positive representation of disability I have seen lately, that also shows these traits in such characters, has been in Episode 5 of Call the Midwife.

Sadly, these are the only real positives I have found in the book.

The good writing and character portrayals is seriously hampered by the seriously clichéd characters and story.

Let’s start with the characters.

Of course the boy is in a minority group (Mexican) and is a gangbanger. He is also mixed up with the rougher people in society and gets into trouble with drugs and the police. He’s only dating her for a bet but oh, he really loves her so changes himself enough to be with her.

Of course the girl is the typical blonde, smart cheerleader who’s dating the football star. She breaks up with him for the boy from across the tracks who she must hide from her family, friends and society. Eventually, when he changes, she is able to go out with him freely in public!

I also have an issue with Brittany’s name. Why is the stereotypical blonde, cheerleading captain called Brittany? Why? It just feels so overused that the character has become almost the symbol of the American school system and must be used when a writer writes a story set in the classic American high school setting.

Plus, why do they meet in a Chemistry class? Why do the characters have to meet like that? I was having serious Twilight flashbacks at that point.

Really? Does the world really need this story AGAIN?! I realise that it is said there are only 7 stories in the world and it is how we dress them up that we create a new twist on that story but it feels like Elkeles tried in some areas of the book but not in others. Unfortunately, it is in arguably the two most important areas of a book that got neglected badly: the story and the characters.

I feel she had a real chance to do a great twist on the genre, challenging the stereotypes and the traditional codes and conventions that have come to epitomise the teen romance genre.

The only way the story could have been improved is if she had scrapped it completely and done something else by allowing the characters to lead. Why not have the girl as the Mexican or another minority and the boy as maybe an invisible geek who sits in the back of the class? What would happen when these two came together?

Having spoken to a friend of mine in the USA about the chemistry class plot point, they told me that joint assignments take place in other classes, like English. Providing it wasn’t a clichéd romance book or even Shakespeare play, maybe the characters could have met there or another class or maybe even outside of school! Do American teenagers lives really completely revolve around high school?

Whilst I had Twilight flashbacks during the chemistry class scenes, throughout much of the book, I also couldn’t help thinking of the Bring It On: All Or Nothing film. The film and this book were almost identical in the main staples of the story and characters.

I also feel that the epilogue was completely unnecessary. There was enough closure in the ending of the previous chapter but open-ended enough that it left the readers able to make up their own ideas of what happened next. The epilogue robs the readers of that and seems to be restarting the story again unneeded.

Problem is, Elkeles is a good writer. She chose the right point of view for the book, creates a town that feels so real, the reader could go there, gives an excellent portrayal of the Mexican people, culture and community and represents disability in such a brilliant way and positive light. It’s with these elements of the book that she manages to hook her audience, makes the readers become emotionally invested in the characters so that, despite all the horrible clichés, the reader keeps on reading to the last page.

It’s because of this that I feel the book is annoyingly addictive and I hope vindicates my view that the book is so bad, it’s good! I’m not sure I would recommend this book necessarily to someone who is experienced with the genre but as a starting point, I think it is a good introduction for new readers to the genre. It has all the stereotypes, the codes and conventions and every last little thing someone would expect from a Young Adult Romance book. For a writer, I think it’s a good book to look at to learn those very same things and to get a grounding in the genre before they start writing their own stories.

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