This is one of those books where I don’t remember how it got on my to-read list. Love Is the Drug is just shy of ten years old now, although thanks to its pandemic storyline it feels perhaps even more topical than it did when Alayna Dawn Johnson wrote it. A YA thriller that mixes Washington, DC, privilege with misogynoir, this novel has a lot of individual elements to recommend it, yet for me it never quite came together as an enjoyable whole.
Emily Bird has it all. She’s with the in crowd at her private school, has the perfect boyfriend, seems to be going places. But something goes down at a party one night—she gets drugged, or something, hits her head, memory absent—and shortly thereafter, a flu sweeps the world and Washington, DC, goes into lockdown. Emily—or Bird, as she increasingly starts to think of herself thanks to the influence of some rebellious spirits like Coffee—is determined to understand more about that fateful night, even if it means antagonizing a private-security spook with CIA connections. Bird isn’t sure who she is anymore—but she is done being a good girl.
Shortly after starting this book, I was beginning to wonder if it would be my first “bad” book of 2023. My reading so far this year has been off to a fantastic start! Love Is the Drug just didn’t grab me. It took me a while, however, to really wrap my head around why that was the case. It’s a less recent book, sure, but there are plenty of 2014 YA releases that still feel relevant to me today. Eventually, I settled on the intersection of setting and character. To be more specific: Bird’s high school experience just feels entirely too bland and familiar. The opening scene at the party felt like the same kind of teenage party scene I had read so many times. Sure, it was a little different because Bird and her peers are mostly rich kids going to one of the most elite schools in the country. Aside from that, however, the setting and the various minor characters who populate it just didn’t feel fresh to me. Paul, Bird’s overbearing sleazeball of a boyfriend, felt like every cluelessly opportunistic young boyfriend I’ve read before. I was having so much trouble finding something about the book to cling on to and enjoy.
This feeling continued for most of the first half of the book. Maybe I should have given up on it. I think mainly what kept me going was the pandemic: I was so interested to see how that worked out given its eerie prescience here in our post-COVID world. So I kept reading.
And damn it if Johnson didn’t mostly change my mind!
Somehow the second half of this book nearly completely turned my opinion around. I think when Bird drops the baggage of her old self, commits to being friends with Marella, decides she’s going to do whatever it takes to bring Roosevelt down—I was like, finally. Let’s do it! The book kicks into a higher gear, and the result is a much more satisfying read.
I’m happy about this because there is plenty to like about this book. Johnson is making some very salient commentary on life as a Black girl in the upper echelons. Bird’s parents, particularly her mother, have a very clear idea of who she is supposed to be: relaxed hair, always polite, going to make a name for herself. We see how Bird’s mother has really bought hard into things like respectability politics, and when Bird dares to express a desire to rebel even a little bit, her mother loses all perspective. Yet her mother isn’t a villain, isn’t a bad person per se—she genuinely believes that her very conservative ideas, that blending in, is necessary for Bird’s survival. Her mother understands the harm of misogynoir in America, and her reaction is to try to fit in more rather than stand out and stand up against it. In this way, Johnson chronicles how different generations of Black families deal with the intergenerational trauma of anti-Black racism differently, and it’s fascinating.
The pandemic content is also, of course, deeply interesting in our current context. Johnson in many ways anticipates how the country would respond to a pandemic respiratory virus: masks, lockdowns and quarantines, the rush for a vaccine. I can only imagine how readers prior to 2020 might have panned the portrayal as unrealistic, but I don’t think anyone who reads the book now can do anything except shake their head at how optimistic, if anything, Johnson was regarding the swiftness and absoluteness of the US government’s public health procedures.
You might notice, if you have read the book, that I’ve said relatively little about the romance between Bird and Coffee. I don’t know that I have much to say, for it’s yet another one of those aspects that just didn’t feel original. I feel terrible saying that because I’m really trying hard not to slate this author. The intensity of feeling that develops is, at times, a very rewarding experience for the reader. But the overall subplot just never feels like it goes anywhere interesting or gets all that exciting.
Love Is the Drug is a book with great intentions that just never quite settles into itself. It has all the ingredients for a great thriller, yet it doesn’t turn into a filling meal. While I don’t want to give the impression it’s awful, I also don’t recommend it, not even for the experience of reading about a pandemic set in such temporal proximity to our own. When I return to this review ten years from now, this is not a book that I will remember.