by Alaya Dawn Johnson
To be published by Arthur A. Levine
on September 30, 2014
Source: e-ARC from the publisher
Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.My take: I didn't read Alaya Dawn Johnson's debut YA book, The Summer Prince, but after reading Love is the Drug, I'm going to remedy that as soon as possible. I think she's a fantastic writer.
So I'll start with the things I loved about this book. The writing was great. Bird was such a complex and compelling character once I got to know her. Bird's parents are government scientists, and Bird's mother has carefully charted an upwardly mobile path for her daughter -- exclusive D.C. prep school, straightened hair, appropriate boyfriend. Bird's relationship with her mother was so well-drawn, so perfect in its portrayal of the complicated tangle of love, dis/approval and weighty expectations that characterizes most parent-child relationships. As a parent, I always appreciate when adult characters in YA are three-dimensional. Yes, Bird's mother is tightly wound, even scarily controlling, but the book also shows the fear and vulnerability underneath. In many ways, I'd call this a classic coming-of-age story, as Bird struggles to take control herself, to chart her own destiny.
However, this book was pitched as a thriller, breathlessly described on Goodreads as The Pelican Brief meets the Andromeda Strain. I'm a fan of both Grisham and Crichton, but to me, this was a totally different kind of book -- more literary and not so fast-paced. Mass market thrillers work when their concept is easily grasped: what if dinosaur DNA were discovered and extracted and new dinosaurs were cloned for a theme park? What if Supreme Court justices were being murdered in order to swing the vote on a case? Good, page-turning fun.
Love is the Drug can't be easily boiled down to a tagline. The story starts at a party, a gathering that begins with a bunch of under-the-influence teenagers and ends up with Bird in the hospital. She spends a long time trying to get answers about what happened to her. At the same time, the country is grappling with a deadly flu epidemic. Cities are quarantined, people are dying. Bird thinks she can get answers about the party from a fellow student slash conspiracy theorist slash small-time drug dealer named Coffee. But he's gone into hiding.
The whole "virus as a conspiracy" part of the story got confusing for me. There's the insinuation that Bird "saw something" or "knew something" and I kept (morbidly) wondering why, if that were the case, Bird didn't get murdered. I mean, what better opportunity to get rid of an inconvenient person than during a deadly epidemic? (Yes, that's the way my twisted mind works. My husband says he sleeps with one eye open.) I typically find these sorts of conspiracy books kind of bloodless because there's often no identifiable villain, just a "vast multinational conspiracy". This book does offer one, but he came off as too bland for me, just showing up to act mysterious and make vague threats. (There is a cool twist at the end with him, though.)
There is also a love triangle of sorts. But I would like to argue that this is the acceptable kind of love triangle, not the kind just written to manufacture drama. As Bird decides between the two boys, one "appropriate" as defined by her mother and one completely inappropriate, she begins to come into her own.
For me, Love is the Drug wasn't a perfect book, but still an interesting and engaging one. My favorite aspect of the book was by far the mother-daughter relationship and to me, the conspiracy stuff didn't add much to the story. But I'm now a fan of Alaya Dawn Johnson and I look forward to reading more of her work.