Love Is the Drug: A Contemporary YA Wearing a Political Thriller Trench Coat

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Love Is the Drug. Alaya Dawn Johnson. September 30th 2014. Arthur A. Levine Books. Scholastic Press. Cover.Love Is the Drug

Alaya Dawn Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press

*Advanced Reviewer’s/Reader’s Copy (ARC)

Goodreads Rating. Screencap. Five Stars. 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.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 2013 young adult novel, The Summer Prince, got plenty of praise last year, and Love Is The Drug should be no different. Having only read the latter, I can say with great confidence and enthusiasm that Johnson’s latest has coveted a spot on my top five best reads of 2014. It has so many things working for it from the issues it tackles, the complex relationships it explores as well as its wonderful pacing. The book straddles the contemporary and the political thriller genres, but doesn’t emphasize one over the other making it an interesting read. It’s thoughtful, emotionally stirring, beautifully written, full of three dimensional and diverse characters that I can either relate to or know people in my life who are like that.

We’re introduced to Emily Bird who is the daughter of scientist parents who work on top secret projects in DC. Through Bird, Johnson dives into the world of a black young woman in a way that I don’t often see in young adult fiction. One of the many instances that appealed to me was the use of chemical relaxers that, for Bird, have baggage attached to them. For her, they represent the desperate need for assimilation in the world of “success” as emphasized by her mother. Her natural kinks would further separate her from her fellow private school classmates and trigger memories of a rough past for her mother who grew up in disadvantaged neighbourhood.

The setting of where the book takes place, Washington, DC, is a great choice given the big racial divide and discussions in the city as well as the political atmosphere that lends to the overall premise. Success is also explored by looking at “whiteness,” and how that is used systematically as a measure of success. Johnson tracks Bird’s personal journey in relation to whiteness by using Emily as the placeholder for the girl who adjusts herself to fit as close as possible to that image – i.e. chemical relaxers to straighten her kinks – to Bird who is someone she feels comfortable being even if it means ditching her relaxer. The book also looks at class in a town filled with the rich and the powerful by using the virus outbreak to convey that. The vice-president’s daughter is referenced throughout the book, and by attending the same private school that Bird goes to, her privilege offers a sphere of influence that can be helpful during a crisis like the one here.

The pacing in this book is fantastic, and it feels like time is naturally progressing with the characters. Bird is someone you want to root for and encourage. You watch her battle the expectations of her mother, her peers, and the society at large and figure out who she is, and how she fits in the world that is laid out before her.

Coffee is devastatingly charming and will easily win the hearts of readers (his relationship with Bird is one to look out for). I really enjoyed reading the relationship between Bird and her mother. Parenting is not easy, and you have parents who want what’s best for their kids stray so far from that course or not knowing how to be a parent in the way that they need them to be.

This book deals with big societal issues, but it’s ultimately about Bird’s issues and trials. It’s about her figuring out who she is, and it’s a problem that is far more likely to get solved (or at least course corrected) in 352 pages than systematic racism or classism is likely to be. It does sow the seeds of those issues in readers’ minds which is what makes literature so great.

This book was released on September 30th, 2014.

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About Author

Former senior editor for WWAC. Part-time contributor. BA in criminals (a minor in daydreams). Batman seeks her advice constantly. Bylines at Book Riot, Teen Vogue, Slate, Quill & Quire and Hyperallergic.

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