Love Is the Drug: Review

Love Is the Drug: Review

Love Is the Drug: ReviewLove Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published by Author A. Levine on September 30, 2014
Genres: contemporary, dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 352 pages
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads


From the author of THE SUMMER PRINCE, a novel that’s John Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF meets Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN set at an elite Washington D.C. prep school.

Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

I’ve had my eye on Love Is the Drug since I first heard of it. I haven’t read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s first young adult novel, The Summer Prince – a post-apocalyptic novel set in Brazil that features queer relationships – but it’s been on my to-read list for awhile. (Peyton, however, has a great review of The Summer Prince here on GoodReads. Check it out!)

Anyway, I figured Love Is the Drug would be catnip for me. I love post-(or almost-but-not-quite) apocalyptic fiction. I love fiction about bioterrorism. And I love YA fiction that features diverse characters. Also also, I will happily read anything that is sold as “such and such meets Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.” Thank you, I will take two of those.

And on that front, Love Is the Drug did not disappoint. Refer to the blurb once again; it is absolutely all of these things. It is def fiction about a world walking along the edge of an apocalypse: there’s a global pandemic of v-flu, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people world-wide, was released in an act of bioterrorism, and has resulted, in America at least, in martial law and mass quarantines. There are also people of color and/or queer characters all over the place: our protagonist, Emily Bird, is African-American; her love-interest, Coffee, is Brazilian; one of her biffles, Marella is African-American and gay. There is a super diverse cast of characters and it is pretty much the greatest thing ever. The book is also really, really, really good at interrogating privilege and giving voice to discussions around class and race between its characters. There are also (brief) discussions about sexual fluidity (i.e., Bird IDs as straight but experiences same-sex attraction). A++. So good.

Additionally, the world-building is strong from the get-go. Bird’s parents are top-notch scientists, and she goes to an upper-crust private high school – with its cliques and its privilege and its screwed-up politics – which is portrayed really convincingly, as are the urgency and secrecy surrounding the global pandemic. The novel starts as a bit of a thriller: after a party where she meets this creepy secret operative, Roosevelt David, who is sure Bird knows something she shouldn’t about her parents’ work, Bird wakes up in a hospital with a foggy memory of the party and the knowledge that she maybe knows something she shouldn’t about the global pandemic and her parents’ role in it. As readers, we’re trying to figure out what this is, and this desire to know what happened really moves the narrative along. Furthermore, re: the portrayal of a global pandemic, and this is kind of spoilery, View Spoiler » I really liked the way that the book demonstrates how much privilege matters by showing privilege-in-action through a crisis scenario – i.e., Bird and her classmates, who go to school with the vice-president’s daughter, receive a vaccine for v-flu FAR before anyone else does; Bird helps move her cousin Aaron into a better school so he’ll have better protection during the quarantine; laws get deployed disproportionately against people of color; a million other examples. « Hide Spoiler

I also like Bird as a character a ton. (Maybe in part because I already like another Emily Byrd). I found Bird to be a hugely sympathetic character: she’s trying desperately to get her parents’ approval and fit in with her high school peers, while simultaneously wishing she could just chuck it all and live a different life. The novel is largely about Bird coming into her own and learning how to navigate a world that has been dominated thus far by other people’s expectations – and this was the strongest part of the novel for me (despite the promise that the global pandemic conspiracy narrative had at the book’s opening). And this works really well as the stakes for a YA novelView Spoiler » the novel is about Bird’s growth. Bird stops blindly following the rules other people set for her; by the novel’s end, she’s negotiating with crucial information to ensure Coffee’s safety. It’s a big change, but the roots of that change are there from the very beginning; there’s this one great scene where Coffee, the son of a Brazilian diplomat, accuses her of being “conservative, conformist, [&] privileged,” and Bird totally (rightfully) calls him out on it. She’s used to doing what other people want, but she also knows that she wants something else. Anyway, watching her figure this out over the course of the novel is great.  « Hide Spoiler

Coffee, who is Bird’s love interest, was not quite as likable. I think his viewpoint is supposed to be aligned with Bird’s subconscious – that Bird can be better and more herself if she stops living for other people’s expectations – but I found him to be a little obnoxious. He gives her a nickname when he meets her – Bird – and says things like, “So he’s the suck-up and I’m the druggie. But you, Emily Bird. You’re the worst of us all.” And I know he challenges her, but ugh. I cannot deal with the teenage boy as love interest who thinks he knows you better than you know yourself. I almost want a version of this story without the romance sub-plot and wonder what it would look like.

That said, the book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness at points. The novel is very much about Bird and that’s great – but by the novel’s close, the other story-lines lose their urgency. This is most apparent with regards to the “oh noes, a conspiracy!” storyline. View Spoiler »From the beginning, Bird worries that her parents have had a hand in creating / unleashing the v-flu. Guess what the big secret that Bird has been hiding from herself is? Ding ding ding. It’s that her parents had a hand in creating code for the v-flu that makes it particularly tricksy – its long incubation period. In addition to this, there are also so many twists and turns to the conspiracy storyline that it’s hard to keep track of all of the players and their different motivations at points – and this ultimately doesn’t matter, because the big reveal is obvious from the beginning. « Hide Spoiler In some ways, this isn’t a big deal – the story is set in America on the eve of destruction, if you will, but it’s not actually about this. It’s about Bird & the social structures, relationships, and institutions she’s embedded in. This is to say – if you’re looking for a fast-paced story with lots of surprising twists, this isn’t it. The action, while it’s absolutely there, is largely internal to Bird.

And on this note, another spoiler:View Spoiler »

One of the other aspects of the book I disliked was its narrative style. The book is, I think, a story told to us by Bird’s subconscious – who, at some points, in the narrative, speaks to us directly. Probably? This is never really made clear. We’re told that this other voice is the “lonely crier in her mind’s dusty corners” and that Bird “sees me, sometimes, and not only in your dreams.” And at the very end of the book, the tense shifts to first-person? I could give various readings of why this change happens – e.g., Bird is able to identify herself and her own desires for the first time, rather than acting out someone else’s dramas and expectations for them – but I maybe want this to be clearer from the very beginning. That is to say, to know *why* we’re being told this story by Bird’s subconscious from the beginning and to know what it means for this narrative voice to shift and change along the way. As a framing device, it is instead inexplicable and a little confusing. « Hide Spoiler

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t all beautifully written, though, because it is. I love Alaya Dawn Johnson’s writing, and even if parts of the plot or the novel’s structure puzzled me, I enjoyed reading Love Is the Drug because I just really like her prose. It’s beautiful. Three and a half stars. Even though it’s confusing and unclear in places, Bird is a great character and Johnson’s writing is lovely.

Has anyone read this or The Summer Prince? If so, what’d you think?

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An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

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