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Book Review: Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

When I was a Junior in high school, I had a history teacher who wanted to make sure that we understood current events and the world that we lived in. So every Friday, we had a current events type quiz bowl. There was a boy in my class named Luke and him and I were super competitive. So I begged my parents for a subscription to both Time and Newsweek and I read. I learned about the tumult in the Middle East, I learned who current world leaders were, and I learned about the way things like gas, terrorism, and boundary disputes can effect the world we live in. My history teacher would love this book.

Emily Bird is the daughter of scientist parents who are involved in work that Bird can’t really understand. All she knows is that her parents, particularly her mom, put tremendous pressure on her to be a successful microversion of them, and she’s not really sure that is what she wants. And then one day the future doesn’t matter because it looks like there may not be one.

A flu pandemic is starting to spread and the world as we know it is changing – and is at war.

One night Bird is at a party when she meets a man and asks about an organization that no one is supposed to know exists. In this moment, everything about her life changes. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of what happened after that conversation. All she knows is now this man named Roosevelt won’t leave her alone because they – whoever they are – are afraid that she may know something she isn’t supposed to.

Her only other fuzzy memory of the night is an image of her friend Coffee trying to run after her. Now, Coffee is being charged with drugging her, but Bird is pretty sure he wouldn’t do that. Not that he couldn’t, because he is both an expert at chemistry and a casual dealer on the side, just that he wouldn’t.

As Bird and Coffee begin to explore what happened to her that night and what it is they are afraid she may know, the two of them begin to draw closer together. Bird also begins the slow and often painful task of figuring out who she really wants to be and standing up for herself. She loses old friends while she makes new ones, all with the backdrop of war, quarantine, and pandemics.

Love is the Drug is a smart, complex, sophisticated dystopian that has so many layers of fascinating discussion. There is science and politics viewed between the pages of this imaginary but all too possible pandemic. At the same time, the students often find themselves contemplating issues of class, racism and privilege amongst themselves. For example, one of Bird’s new friends is a scholarship student – and an out GLBTQ one at that – and she comments frequently about the issues she faces as both someone who is out and as someone not in the same economic bracket as her classmates.

And in the midst of all of this, we see Bird literally growing her wings so she can fly to her personal freedom as she embraces who she is and who she wants to be. She begins to assert herself, to question the world she lives in, to question her parents . . . She begins to open her eyes and allow herself to truly see.

Then there is Coffee. The dude is incredibly smart and very in love with Bird, but he does not always make the best decisions. See, for example, the fact that he is a dealer. He is a great example of a flawed person that you just really, really love.

This was a hard start for me, it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the storytelling style and to wrap by head around some of the political background. But once I got in sync with the story, I couldn’t put it down. I enjoyed the relationships happening in the foreground, including the various family and friends we meet, while trying to figure out the what Bird might know and what it meant to the current war and pandemic. And then in the background there is that pulse pumping countdown as one by one the war comes closer, more and more people get sick and die, and the threats against Bird become more pressing.

There are things that happen inside this book that I really, really want to talk about and what they mean for the real world. To say that this book is discussable is an understatement.

Like I said, it is complex, sophisticated, and intelligent. It is also a compelling dystopian thriller that keeps you turning the pages to discover its secrets. I highly recommend it.

Coming in September from Arthur A. Levine Books. ISBN: 978-0-545-41781-5. I picked up an ARC of this book at ALA, mainly because it has the biohazard symbol on the cover and you know I love a good epidemic/pandemic.

Publisher’s Description:

From the author of THE SUMMER PRINCE, a novel that’s John Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF meets Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN set at an elite Washington D.C. prep school.

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