Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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love is the drugLove is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Levine, 2014.

I reviewed The Summer Prince last year (not on this blog) and I thought it was a compelling and rich entry in the dystopian genre, crammed, though maybe overstuffed, with original and unconventional ideas. So I was excited to pick up Johnson’s new book, which is a standalone, not a sequel to Prince. Just as a note, though I’m a Roxy Music fan, it’s unclear to me why this book has been saddled with such a lame title and Divergent-esque cover – neither sell the book on its strengths, and both of which may give expectations that won’t be filled.

Set in the just-around-the-corner future in Washington DC, Emily Bird is a Black student at a prestigious Washington DC high school, with an ambitious boyfriend and somewhat distant, scientist parents who work for the government.

When Emily Bird wakes up in hospital, her last memories are of a party, several days before, at which she spoke to a mysterious government contractor. Meanwhile, there has been a bioterrorist attack on the country, millions are dying and Venezuela is blamed. Locked away in her memory is a vital piece of information and it’s a race for her to recall it before the contractor can stop her.

Johnson uses the metaphor of the Trojan horse several times, and this novel is indeed one. Outwardly it’s a speculative conspiracy thriller, with an all too plausible plot. But inside, it’s really about the protagonist’s breaking out from compliant Emily, set on the rails, to independent thinking Bird who wants what she wants, not what is expected of her. And part of her metamorphosis is dumping Mother-approved stuffed shirt Paul, for mesmerizing Coffee, the Brazilian chemistry-loving, politically savvy hottie (though several references to his curly hair looking like “fat worms” makes him sound distinctly unsexy).

And in truth, the inside is the better book – as a realistic novel about a teen taking the reins and blossoming into a young woman it works very well. But as a thriller it’s too talky and sluggishly paced, occasionally didactic, and confusing, with some of the big reveals muffled in a host of detail.

Love is the Drug has a widely diverse cast of well-crafted characters, and Johnson is exquisitely skilled at introducing their race and social standing subtly. Bird herself is a wonderful creation, and her relationships with schoolmates, friends, family, and, particularly, her challenging parents are superbly drawn.

Johnson’s writing is literate and crafted, a sentence like “her heart feels like a piece of pounded citrus, peeled apart by clumsy hands” is marvelously evocative. But for me, it is too often needlessly florid as in “a creation as unprecedented and unique as her patron iconoclast.” In addition, the novel occasionally breaks from the third person into the first or second person for no explicable reason – I was expecting this to resolve by the end but it just didn’t.

Love is the Drug is a winner for readers who are more interested in characters and ideas than pageturning plot,

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