Brittany Ellis appears to have the perfect life. She is co-captain of the cheerleading squad and is dating the captain of the school's football team. She's beautiful, rich, and popular. Little does anyone know, this is all a carefully crafted and protected facade that she works hard to maintain because, in reality, her home life is far from perfect. Her older sister has cerebal palsy, and Brittany's parents would like nothing better than to send her sister away to a school rather than take care of her at home. Her father is hardly ever at home, and when he is, he is distant and absent from any meaninfgul involvement with his family. Her mom is hyper-critical, and Brittany feels she has to be perfect to make up for her sister's "imperfections."
Alex Fuentes is a member of the Latino Bloods in Chicago. He's pretty smart, but he doesn't see a future for himself that involves anything other than being in the gang because he sees it as the only way to protect his younger brothers from joining. His father was killed in drug/gang-related activity when he was young, and Alex seems to get in trouble at school all the time, even when he's not doing anything wrong. Alex and Brittany get paired as chemistry partners for a year-long assignment to make hand-warmers. They dislike each other a lot at first, but eventually they come to realize that the other is not who they appear on the surface. Actually, they discover, they have a lot in common and are very attracted to each other. They develop a romance, despite the objections of pretty much everyone else in their lives.
I'd recommend this to fans of Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr. However, although the romance appeals to me, it's probably not going to be one that I recommend to a lot of readers. The voices of the characters seemed very inauthentic to me. They seemed like something an adult writer would create for a teen book rather than voices of real teens. I also felt that Alex was too "good." He did almost everything bad under duress, and he didn't do any of the bad things he was accused of by the school adminsitrators. The basic plot device is one that has been done a lot, and in my opinion, this doesn't add much new to the story: uptown girl with seemingly perfect life attracted to the bad boy "from (literally) the wrong side of the tracks" with a heart of gold. And while they insisted throughout the book that Brittany and Alex discovered how much they had in common, I just didn't see it. Plus, Brittany's boyfriend was almost completely unlikeable. I would have liked to see a more nuanced, complex character (like the jilted boyfriends in Sweethearts or Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac). The ending [SPOILER ALERT!] was probably the thing that I liked least about the book. A different ending could have made these other criticisms less significant in my mind. I'm always one to want a happy ending, but this was too neat and unlikely, even for me. I mean, not only did Alex get out of the gang, but he moved to Colorado to go to college with Brittany and then they ended up having a child they named after Alex's dead friend, and then their son was in chemistry class with their same teacher. It's super cute, but just too much for me. This is the ending I wanted for Zarr's Sweethearts, but that novel worked better because the ending was so much more realistic and a necessary outcome of the characters and circumstances. But if you want to read something that has the feel of Sweethearts with the ending you always wanted for Cameron and Jenna, this might be the book for you.