Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson: A Review


Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 30th 2014 by Arthur A. Levine Books
Source: Publisher

“Bird is not always kind, or fair. But she is honest. At her best, she is brave.

We dream of a future with love. Her mother dreams of a future with success.

But not all choices are ours. Not everyone has agency, and a Black woman–even a rich one–knows that better than most.”

Alaya Dawn Johnson is an American author who has written several books for young adults. She went to Columbia University and currently lives in Mexico City.

Love is the Drug has polarizing reactions among the readers and I suspect the reason I like it so much rests solely on the fact that I empathize with Emily Bird on a deeper level than those whose reviews I have glanced at. (Fighting words? Let me get my sword out and take a lesson from Janet!) Anyway! As always, before I begin talking about the book, let me sketch out a synopsis of it in my own words.

Emily Bird lives a privileged life; she goes to a school for rich kids (one the students in her school is the vice-president’s kid), she lives in a posh neighbourhood in a nice house, she has an ambitious and well-connected boyfriend. The only things that might detract her from having a wonderful life are her mother, her feelings for a certain boy called Coffee and herself. Both of Emily’s parents are genius scientists and not very present in her life. Despite being a mostly absent parent, Emily’s mother has made her aware of the expectations she has of Emily–expectations that Emily, if she knows what’s good for her, will do her best to fulfill. Meet? Anyway, her parents are out of town when Emily has an incident involving a party, her boyfriend, a horrible CIA kind of man and drugs. She wakes up in hospital with no memory of what happened and how she got there. Things go from bad to worse when she realizes that her boyfriend may have been involved with the incident and that the secret agent has targeted her for reasons she is not sure about. Coffee, her secret crush, is blamed for the drugs that led to Emily’s hospitalization and the cold that everyone thought would blow over has claimed enough victims that it is now considered a pandemic. Certain areas of the city have been quarantined and Emily is sent to live with her mother’s poorer brother who is lower on the social ladder than his sister.

Some of the more common complaints I have read about this novel include the predictability of the tale and the regurgitation of tropes common to pre-apocalyptic stories.

I didn’t have these complaints and I will explain to you why.

Living as a POC, being a part of the minority, I have long realized, means that there is a weight to your actions, a depth to them that the majority do not feel. You are never able to shed things that construct your identity. For example, I am never just that girl. I am always that Muslim girl. Everyone I meet (or do not actively meet) construct some expectations about who I am simply because of the colour of my skin and the religion I follow.

In Love is the Drug, Emily Bird is never just a girl. She is that black girl and she feels her history in every second of her existence. The way she acts, the way she talks, the stereotypes she reinforces and those that she subverts: everything is up for comment and judgment. Johnson manages to portray this perfectly in Emily Bird’s awareness of her own self: her physical and emotional self. Johnson shows how race is always a player in all the dealings a POC of has no matter how many times people spout platitudes such as “everyone bleeds.” Because though everyone does bleed, the concern the bleeding evokes is different depending on who is doing the bleeding.

Emily Bird’s mother is stifling: she is a horrible mother in all the ways that count. She wants Emily Bird to deny her heritage except as it benefits her upward progression in society. It doesn’t matter to her what Emily Bird wants to do with her hair or her future; the only thing that does matter is Emily Bird act as she wants her to. She is cruel and there is one scene that made her irredeemable to me. Thankfully, there is nothing as inane as a quick resolution to parental conflicts in this book.

The plot of the book is, I will admit, shaky and depends a lot on other novels that have established the bioterrorism genre. The writing is smart and I dare say demands its readers either be equipped with a dictionary or have a high level of SAT words in their arsenal. I appreciated this as I have often felt that the vocabulary used in YA novels does not necessarily have to be simple. The pace of the novel is slow: too slow for some readers and just enough for others.

I liked the romance. I liked that Coffee is juxtaposed with her boyfriend and that though he is charismatic and has a story of his own, he doesn’t take away from Emily Bird. I like that though the romance is the stuff melodrama is made of, it does not, in the end, take away from Emily Bird’s struggle to become the person she wants to be and not the person her mother, the society in which she lives and her cowardice demand she be. Once she stops colouring only in the lines, Emily Bird becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The book is written in third person with some curiousfirst person bits that are from an unidentified speaker. It took me a while to figure out who this speaker is but the payoff was profound.

The attention given to female friendship is a huge proponent of this novel but couple that to acceptance and understanding (heck, even the mention of) sexual fluidity makes this novel a winner in my books.

So yes, perhaps this book does have its flaws but for me, its positives far outweigh whatever negatives you may find. Love is the Drug is important because it presents the conflicts and lives of POC adolescents in a time when the need for diversity in entertainment and media is crucial.

I strongly recommend this novel.