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Love Is the Drug


Love Is the Drug

Walking the line between near-future science fiction and government conspiracy thriller, LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson follows Bird, a young woman beset on all sides by other people's expectations. Not only does Bird have to deal with the high stakes lifestyle of her private school in Washington D.C., the pressure not to fall into the perceived stereotypes of her race and gender and complications in her love life, but she also finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy as a global pandemic sparks martial law and city-wide quarantines.
When Bird is introduced, readers learn that her life has been largely mapped out for her, a path that will take her to "great things" as a powerful black leader. Her mother, a scientist who had to struggle to succeed, accepts nothing less, and that chafing control is part of what prompts Bird to fight back when the world starts to devolve into a chaotic mess around her.
The quarantine cuts Bird off from her parents' direct control and also throws her into a strange conspiracy where she is a victim of circumstance and manipulated, threatened and assaulted. Bird's growing dissatisfaction with her life and with her own lack of control boils up, though, and topples the carefully laid plans of a number of rather terrible people in the government. 
One of the things LOVE IS THE DRUG does well is balance the various layers of narrative and the different struggles so that it all works as one story. At its core is Bird's struggle to discover who she wants to be --- free from her mother’s expectations, from school pressures, from everything. 
The characters all pop with personality, their voices distinct and complicated. 
It is the characters of LOVE IS THE DRUG, though, that really shine, and the relationships that Bird forms with them. From the strained love between Bird and her parents to the genuine but guarded love between her and her uncle, Bird begins the story not quite sure how to define herself. As she grows closer to Coffee, a Brazilian boy gifted in chemistry (and one who uses that gift in part to make designer drugs), Bird begins to realize that living her own life is the only way she can be happy. And though her mother and others try to force her into making the decisions they think are best for her, Bird ultimately learns that she is the one who has to live with her decisions, and begins to blaze her own path.
The characters all pop with personality, their voices distinct and complicated. Her classmates are all products of their situations, damaged in different ways, just as Bird is. Her friends Charlotte and Marella have strong mini-arcs, and while I feel that a few characters could have been given more time near the end, what is there is satisfying. 
I also really enjoyed how Bird and Coffee's relationship is never really toxic --- they come from a place of friendship, which makes it something that Bird has more control over and more power in. Their relationship is sweet, but Coffee, despite the fact that he's a drug dealer, is timid and cautious and has to be reassured by Bird more often than she needs to be reassured by him. It's a good dynamic, and one that matures throughout the story.
In the end, LOVE IS THE DRUG delivers on its many plot lines, resolving each perhaps a little too neatly for me, but still in a satisfying manner. Bird is finally allowed to fly, at least if she wants to. And for a book so concerned with expectations, Bird manages to find her own way, to escape the gravity of everyone else's plans for her and to take responsibility for her own life. It is a powerful message, and one delivered with style and skill by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Reviewed by Charles Payseur on September 30, 2014

Love Is the Drug
by Alaya Dawn Johnson

  • Publication Date: September 30, 2014
  • Genres: Thriller, Young Adult 12+
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545417813
  • ISBN-13: 9780545417815