Love Is the Drug: Review

October 6, 2014 3.5 star books, contemporary 25 ★★★½

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
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three-half-stars
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 Princhere 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 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 »

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 » 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 »

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.

25 Responses to “Love Is the Drug: Review”

  1. Kim

    Augh. I lovvvvvve apocalyptic fiction and especially when it’s brought about by viral threat. I love diversity, and lots of it, especially in YA. But I have a problem. And the problem is that pretty much all I care about (or perhaps more accurately what I care most about) is the romance in any given book. Like, it’s so bad that what I mostly cared about in The Hunger Games, a story about the devastation of war, was the fate Katniss x Peeta. I acknowledge this problem and am up front about it.

    So while everything about this screams Kim Book I cannot abide the sound of this love interest. I haaaate the Cocky Boy Who Knows You Better Than You. Haaaate. Ugh. At least now I can rest assured to not have this high up on my TBR. Thanks, Layla!
    Kim recently posted…Chaos by Sarah Fine: review

    • Layla A

      Oh man. If you are not a fan of Cocky Boy Who Knows Better Than You, back away slowly. (And not only does he know better than you, he will mansplain you to yourself. Meh.)

      So, I love me some romance and like you, it is one of the Main Things I care about in a book, though maybe not always the Main Thing (case in point, I feel indifferent about Katniss and Peeta. I know, I’m sorry). A solid romance, though, can really make a book for me. And make me forgive a book’s other sins.

      Anyway, so it says something that for this book, I would have preferred no romance at all to the romance we were given. I liked Bird! She is way too cool for this shit.
      Layla A recently posted…I’ll Give You the Sun

    • Layla

      Coffee was kind of a jackass. I thought. But I’m admittedly just not into worldly, revolutionary love-interests, especially when they try to shame young women into being different or being better or other than what they are. Meh. No thanks! Might work for some people, though.

      If you read it, come back and let me know what you think!
      Layla recently posted…Dissonance: Review

    • Layla

      Hey Sarah, I hope you like it if you read it then. And yeah, I need to do a re-read of those books sometime soon – I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. (How will I feel about Teddy or Dean as an adult? UNCLEAR).
      Layla recently posted…Dissonance: Review

  2. Peyton

    I’ve been so excited to read this one too! It seems like your opinions are similar to mine on The Summer Prince- great diverse cast of characters. beautiful characters, but a sometimes confusing plot. Did you find the name Coffee distracting when you were reading? Because I feel like it’s going to distract me haha.
    Peyton recently posted…Dissonance: Review

    • Layla

      I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of this one, then. And yeah, that about sums it up – it makes me sad in some ways (because I feel like these are all things that could have been fixed re: the plotting, and they really do detract from my enjoyment of the novel). And the other components of the book are so good. I don’t know. I felt a little like too much was going on sometimes and it wasn’t always clear why it mattered (and in the end, I think, a lot of it didn’t). And since the books open w/ these really intriguing plots, it’s hard to see them fall by the wayside.

      Yesssss. “Coffee” as a name did distract me. And make me thirsty.
      Layla recently posted…Dissonance: Review

      • Peyton

        Yes, that is exactly how I felt about her last book, which sucks because otherwise I think she is such a great author. Names are my pet peeve, especially when they’re nouns for other things that should never be a child’s name. Is it at least a nickname? Please let it just be a nickname!
        Peyton recently posted…Dissonance: Review

        • Layla

          It’s not his legal name – and we’re told what his legal name is – but he’s mostly called “Coffee” and it is impossible to think of him otherwise.
          Layla recently posted…Dissonance: Review

  3. Nikki

    This sounds very interesting, I’ll definitely be picking it up!

  4. Vivien

    This too has been on my radar for such a long time! I just love the cover, title and synopsis. It really is right up my ally!! That said, I didn’t read the spoiler tags, but I do think I’d enjoy this one about the same that you did. But I do still want to read it! Lately while I read, it’s been all about the characterization and how I feel personally. Unfortunately, that lends to me needing to read EVERYTHING just to see how I really feel. Good thing this sounds like a really enjoyable read. So glad you ended up liking it :)

    • Layla

      RIGHT? I like the cover and also THE DIVINYLS! And prep school + pandemic + conspiracies + Washington, D.C.! If you pulled random tropes and settings out of a hat, you could probably not come up with a more perfect combination for me. … probably.

      You should read it and let me know what you think! I do think you’re right – it’ll probably depend on your mood and whether or not you’re into Bird as a main character (that got me through most of the book, even when I was like, “Hmm, not *precisely* sure what’s happening, but I’m going with it!”). It was enjoyable; I did really like it, though the pacing was off in parts and I found some of the action highly perplexing. But seriously her writing is really lovely and now I want to read The Summer Prince! Have you done?
      Layla recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review

      • Vivien

        I haven’t read that one yet either! But I did read Peyton’s review and instantly put it on my tbr list!! I’m definitely keeping this author of the radar.

  5. Pili

    This one sounds like a very interesting book but since I usually love the action in post-apocalyptic stories and although it sounds like the book is the kind that will make you think and those are always the best kind of books, I feel like I’d be hoping for more action.
    Great review!
    Pili recently posted…Crushed by Eliza Crewe Blog Tour: Review!!

    • Layla

      If you give it a try, let me know what you think. I’d be really interested in hearing what you think! There is action but in some ways it doesn’t matter – it definitely takes a back seat to the action that is our MC’s character’s development. Any recs for more post-apocalyptic stories? I kind of want to read the one Kim wrote about last …
      Layla recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review

      • Pili

        I’m thinking I’ll probably give it a try cause of the diversity you mentioned in your review, cause that’s always a nice change! I do think you ought to give Station Eleven a try, I’ll be reading it soon myself!
        Pili recently posted…Tell Me Tuesdays #15!!

  6. Teen Underground

    It’s particularly nice to see the kind of diversity you mention in a dystopia/science fiction, since I feel like so often diverse characters are stuck in the contemporary niche that they can most easily/stereotypically be placed in. At the same time, I have to steer clear of bioterrorism/terrible pandemics, which completely terrify me. But knowing that this one is so much more about the characters than anything else makes me interested in giving it a try!
    Teen Underground recently posted…Maya Van Wagenen at CCPL!

    • Layla

      I will say that if the *subject* of bioterrorism / pandemics terrifies you, you might not like it. But it depends on what you find scary. (It’s not graphically described or anything. It’s not like The Andromeda Strain where there are like … descriptions of the virus in action. What’s scary about the pandemic in this book is how it plays out in the world and wreaks havoc on social structures, I think.) So … this is all to say, depends on what bothers you. If the former, you should be good to go. If the latter, maybe steer clear. Or maybe not – in a lot of ways, the pandemic setting is a vehicle for Bird’s character development and less threatening than it might be otherwise.

      Have you read The Summer Prince? That’s dystopia / science fiction w/ diverse characters, and isn’t about pandemics. :) You might like it more! Or Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound, which I’m in the middle of and am quite liking.
      Layla recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review

    • Layla

      It’s a really interesting book. There’s a lot there to talk about, I think – it’s a rich text. If you do choose to indulge your curiosity and give it a try, I’d be interested in hearing what you think about it?

      Also, I like your review of Feral – I don’t think I would have picked that up on my own, but after reading what you’ve written about it – and the quotes from Schindler’s bio you posted – I’m certainly intrigued. Have you read anything else by her? I’m especially interested in A Blue So Dark.
      Layla recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review