Love is the Drug - Alaya Dawn Johnson

Haters (i.e. ridiculous reviewers on GoodReads) who think this book is taking on too many issues at once are probably just unfamiliar with intersectionality or are part of a very privileged group. But I suppose I can get into that more later in the review. Let me begin with the synopsis, though.

Bird has just woken up from a week-long coma unable to remember what happened to her the evening she blacked out, except for a few snippets that just don't make sense. Upon waking up, Bird is met by a rather shady government agent named Roosevelt, who informs her that a new flu virus has swept through the United States and is ravaging the population. There are now quarantines, curfews, martial law has been enacted, and Roosevelt seems to think Bird knows something that could be terribly damaging to the government. Bird manages to connect with the one person who might be able to help her figure things out, a young man named Coffee, who is a drug dealer at a neighboring prep school in the DC area. The narrative focuses on Bird's attempt to piece together the forgotten evening and figure out if she actually knows what Roosevelt is so sure she does.
Bird wakes up. The walls aren't white, but close, the color of a cracked egg. She turns her head on the pillow and looks through a window to the street below. Deserted, not a single car parked on the side, and she stares at that until a solitary tank grumbles down the road, guns steady.
Love is the Drug couldn't be more different from Johnson's first novel, The Summer Prince, but it is, in many ways, focused on many of the same social and political issues that marginalized people experience and are (much too) slowly changing over time. Bird is African American and often finds herself fighting against intersecting racial and class-related prejudice. Bird also has to navigate a complex system of government secrets and political intrigue due to her parents' secret work and her interactions with Coffee and Roosevelt. 

Since the book deals with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and other related struggles, I can see why some individuals might think Johnson is simply checking off the diversity boxes, but such a statement doesn't hold up to scrutiny if we look at the real lives of people living in North America today, especially those who aren't white, heterosexual, and middle-class!
Marella is the only out lesbian in their grade, the only one with an obvious girlfriend in the entire school. The girls pretend they're okay with it to her face, but when the gossip turns vicious in the senior room, Bird's kept silent more times than she wants to admit.
While I love much of what Johnson is doing in the book, I did find myself getting sometimes lost in the narrative at times. Bird's voice is perceptive and bold, but the switching between retrospective and current thoughts and events left me having to go back and reorient myself from time to time. The number of characters and the setting up of the story also felt a bit long and overly-complicated. That being said, I still found the novel to be bold and intriguing and I think it will find an audience with fans of social commentary, political suspense, and strong protagonists!

A strong new book from the creator of the brilliant and well-received The Summer Prince. Check it out!


(Note: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out September 30, 2014)


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