TEEN LIBRARIAN'S NOTE:
I'm reviewing together the first two books of Simone Elkeles' "Perfect Chemistry" trilogy. Although the particulars are different, each book is basically a steamy, updated version of the star-crossed love story featured in "Romeo and Juliet" (or "Pretty in Pink" or "She's All That" or "West Side Story" or … well, you get the picture!). I slightly preferred the first book, "Perfect Chemistry," over its successor, "Rules of Attraction," but I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed both novels. Despite soap opera plots, cliched setups, and mostly flat characterizations, I gobbled both books up … and even re-read some passages. These books may be light and a bit trashy, but they're fast-paced, addictive, and rewarding in their own way.
Ok, so in the barest of plot outlines, both books feature a poor bad boy with a heart of gold who falls in love with an innocent, good girl from the other side of town. The characters resist the unexpected pull, outsiders (and occasionally family members) are opposed, events conspire to keep the lovers apart, a tragic event occurs, and, ultimately, we get our well-earned happy ending. [By the way, I LOVE a happy ending in YA literature!]
In "Perfect Chemistry," Latino gangbanger Alex Fuentes is paired as a chem lab partner with white cheerleading captain Brittany Ellis. They instantly hate each other, bickering constantly, which only masks the intense attraction they both feel. Alex stupidly makes a bet to score with Brittany before Thanksgiving, but in trying to bring the most perfect, popular girl in school down a notch, he actually starts caring for her. A lot. On Brittany's side, her rigid perfection is a cover for a troubled home life, and, despite having a (jerky) boyfriend, she finds herself thinking about Alex and his secret sweet side all the time. Throw in an escalation in Alex's gang involvement, violence, falling in love, vulnerability, rejection, and heartache, and you get the idea here.
Although it can be incredibly obvious at times — of course the tough guy is sweet; of course the popular girl is scared; of course all their fighting is hiding true love; of course Brit's boyfriend is a lout; etc. — "Perfect Chemistry" works because it hits every star-crossed love note perfectly. Yes, this plotline has been done to death, but author Elkeles expertly captures the angst, desperation, and world-shaking importance of first love. She also does a superb job of conveying the sensual, intoxicating side of that love without ever crossing the line into tawdriness or inappropriateness. This is, after all, a teen novel.
Much of what I just wrote can be applied to "Rules of Attraction," which is set three years later. Middle Fuentes brother Carlos is sent from Mexico (where he's joined a gang) to Colorado to live with reformed older brother Alex. Carlos is exactly like Alex in the first novel — sexy, arrogant, smart, confident, undisciplined, and hotheaded. Following an arrest, Carlos moves in with classmate Kiara Westford's family. Professor Westford agrees to supervise Carlos in an attempt to help him straighten out his life before he ends up in jail or dead. Unlike the beautiful, popular Brittany, Kiara is a tomboy who can fix cars, hike mountains, and play soccer. She also stutters when nervous, which causes her bitchy classmates to ridicule her. Kiara begins to fall for Carlos when she sees his shy, kind side, although Carlos at first insists they be only fake boyfriend and girlfriend. Naturally, this doesn't last long! Much like Alex, Carlos is also stalked by the perils of gang life and must risk violence and death to be with the girl he loves. That's heady stuff!
The biggest difference in "Rules of Attraction" lies in Kiara's family. While the Ellises are cold and distant, Kiara's folks are warm, involved, and compassionate. Kiara's dad is one of the few truly well-rounded characters in either novel, as this mild mannered, bleeding heart psychologist has a hidden past, a tough streak, and secrets of his own. I loved the relationship Carlos develops with Professor Westford and how Carlos matures under the Professor's patient care.
Again, despite the flaws here, the essence of the story — that true love among teens is powerful, frightening, uplifting, and so worth dying for — is captivating. There is a real sense of urgency behind Carlos and Kiara's relationship, which is fueled by the palpable deadline of Carlos' impending, coerced drug deal. If the resolution of Carlos' gang predicament is both laughable and wholly unrealistic, so be it. It takes nothing away from the raw energy that pervades this book. Just check out the scene depicted on the book's cover, when Carlos and Kiara lean out of car windows in the rain after an emotional night, and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about here.
Neither "Perfect Chemistry" nor "Rules of Attraction" are going to win any awards for literary merit. So what? These books work wonderfully as intense teen romances. Even if I rolled my eyes at times, I raced through both books, re-reading, sighing, laughing, and, on one occasion, even crying a little. If that's not the mark of a great teen romance, I don't know what is.
Final note: although both novels are sensual, they aren't graphic. The sex takes place "off camera." There is a great deal of strong language, but that's to be expected in books that star gang members. If the language doesn't put you off, I don't see any problem with 8th graders (maybe even mature 7th graders?) reading these books. And if you love them as much as I did, the third book — yay for another Fuentes brother! — comes out in August 2011. Enjoy!
Here's the book trailer for "Rules of Attraction," which I think captures the smoking hot intensity I've been trying to describe!