Monday, January 25, 2010

Perfect Chemistry

Perfect Chemistry

Author: Simone Elkeles
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Release Date: Dec. 2008

Series: Stand-alone title

Brittany Ellis has it all. She's the Queen Bee at her school, popular, captain of the pom pom squad, dating the captain of the football team, great grades, and gorgeous to boot. Everyone thinks her life is perfect because she's worked very hard to create that illusion. In truth, her mother is a perfectionist who harps on Brittany constantly. Her father is a workaholic who avoids family problems by staying away from home as much as possible and hiding in his study when he can't. And Brittany's older sister, Shelley, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, has grown so frustrated and difficult to manage that her parents are talking of sending her off to live in a home for the disabled. As if her home life didn't suck enough, Brittany has just been assigned the lab partner from hell for her senior chemistry project: gangbanger Alex Fuentes.

Alex has reluctantly followed in his dead father's footsteps, joining the violent Latino Blood gang in order to protect his mother and two younger brothers. He's cultivated the image of a tough, menacing guy who isn't afraid of anything or anyone even as he refuses to engage in the more illicit activities of gang life. He serves as the muscle when it comes time to collect debts owed to the gang's leaders, but Alex stands his ground when it comes to dealing drugs. Still, it kills him to know that his future probably includes dying at a very young age and that there is absolutely no way out of the life he's been born into. The future certainly doesn't include college or a relationship with someone like Brittany Ellis, the Snow Queen of Fairfield High. When he's assigned to be her lab partner, he figures he'll have fun baiting the girl to torment her boyfriend and reinforce his rep as someone who doesn't give a damn. And just to ensure that he keeps his distance, he makes a bet with his friends that he can sleep with Brittany before Thanksgiving.

As the weeks pass, though, both Brittany and Alex realize that what everyone around them believes about them is really nothing more than a carefully constructed facade that hides a person riddled with demons and troubles. Brittany fights her growing attraction to Alex, reminded time and again by both her parents and her friends that Alex is not the type of guy she should associate with. Alex's image of Brittany as a spoiled rich girl begins to crumble when he gets a glimpse of her home life. And the two find that the only person they seem to be able to be themselves around is the other.

But the leader of Alex's gang is pushing for him to get more involved in the gang's drug business. Brittany's parents have finally decided to send Shelley away for good. And both must face the disapproval of their friends as they realize that they've fallen in love.

Perfect Chemistry is a perfect example of how good storytelling can make up for poor writing. While I found myself rolling my eyes quite a bit at the clunky dialogue, forced plot points, and out-of-character observations, I couldn't keep from turning the pages to see what would happen.
Brittany and Alex are appealing characters almost despite Elkeles' portrayal of them. While Brittany comes over as a doormat of the worst order - taking the crap her mother dishes out to her with meek acceptance - at least her love for her sister gives us some motivation as to why she might be trying to be so perfect. Brittany honestly believes that she must make up for the fact that her sister is handicapped, and it never occurs to her until near the end of the book how unfair it is for her parents to both place all of their hopes and expectations on her or to project their frustrations and disappointments from having a handicapped child on their youngest daughter. Brittany spends a good portion of the book worrying about what everyone else will think, and while I imagine this is true for most teens, it got a bit tiresome.

For his part, Alex is a decent hero. He's been forced to join a gang, but still he embraces the image of gangbanger whole-heartedly. His desire to keep his younger brothers out of the gang do much in making him admirable. In the beginning of the book I felt Elkeles really struggled to establish Alex's image in school as a bad-ass that the other kids feared by giving him what I think was supposed to be smart-assed dialogue that came across as simply annoying and made him look stupid. In this case, I imagine a guy like Alex to be someone who says as little as possible. But Elkeles would have him actually raise his hand to make an obnoxious comment that didn't sound so much bad-ass as a bad-ass wannabe more likely to be openly ridiculed than respected.

Another cliché Elkeles relied on to establish Alex's street cred was to have him constantly be accused of things he didn't do. As if his reputation at school was so horrible that everyone immediately looked to him when some misbehaviour was discovered. At one point, Alex is brought before the principal when graffiti is found in the school gym and a can of spray paint is found in Alex's locker. Alex didn't do it, and he's able to prove his innocence in such a way as the principal believes it. However, we never discover who framed him or why. It was as if the entire scene was strictly there to demonstrate what a bad rep Alex had that he gets dumped on for everything.

While I never quite saw Alex as a scary badass - the type of guy I'd cross the street to avoid - nor did Brittany ever quite seem the kind of girl who would rule the school given her lack of backbone, at least the relationship between the two was well drawn. The almost forbidden attraction between them grew naturally and built steadily. Even as they fight their feelings for each other, it's undeniable that they are meant to be together. I think this is what kept me turning pages - to find out when and how they would finally give in to their feelings.

Unfortunately, the ending of the book was both a bit forced and a bit trite. Alex does something for reasons I still don't fully buy, and the conflict it created was resolved far too easily. I could have done without the Epilogue altogether.

One issue I had with the book's setting I can't manage to resolve. Elkeles set this story in a suburb of Chicago, and reading the back cover information about Elkeles, it seems she's actually from Chicago and therefore has intimate knowledge of the city and surrounding burbs. Fictional Fairfield High is supposedly located where huge mansions sit on Lake Michigan beachfront property (which would be the Northern Shore communities) but there is also a large population of economically disadvantage Latino families. The high school social structure is divided into the North Side Rich Kids and the South Side Latino kids. It could be that such a place exists and I just don't know it, but I couldn't imagine a school with such an extreme divide in the Chicagoland area. And I'd bet dollars to donuts that no community that contains people as well-off as Brittany and her friends' families are described to be would ever tolerate the presence of Latino gangs who ride around flashing gang symbols and wearing bandannas to indicate gang membership. They'd make sure their tax dollars were being used to keep the "riffraff" far away from their homes and schools.

In the end, I would say that this book is a very intriguing read that kept me turning pages so therefore can be considered a success. You do have to have an accepting attitude when it comes to the writing itself, which I thought fell short of what it could have been. I give it a qualified recommendation.

Rating: Couldn't Put It Down

1 comment:

オテモヤン said...
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