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Drugged by Love?

Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, September 2014
Reviewed from ARC

So, I think I made it pretty clear last year that I really like Alaya Dawn Johnson’s style. She’s smart and she writes books that appeal to me as a reader. But if you dismiss this as just another fangirl review, you’ll be missing out, because despite the flaws (and there are flaws — fannish and blind are not synonyms) this is one seriously notable book.

When I first read this, I mentally classified it as a thriller. Which it is, sort of. Sure, there are those early references to events in 2016 so the reader knows it’s set in a near future, but it’s so near future that it hardly registers. I read it with an eye towards how it did or did not fulfill my expectations for a thriller in the model of the Cold War era spy thrillers my mother read by the dozen in my childhood (which I sometimes stole and read too because lots of pages). As a thriller, this largely works — it’s a little too meditative, maybe, and there’s the weird narrative voice that keeps popping through that makes it clear this isn’t just rogue psycho CIA types run amok. But the stuff one expects of the thriller genre is all there — shadowy government conspiracies, secrets being kept by love ones, a love interest who’s a bad guy and a bad guy-esque/criminal love interest, and a general sense of impending doom that can only be avoided by outsmarting the actual bad guys.

Also when I first read this, I had thoughts about the way this is a book about a young black woman that is really different from anything else I’ve read where the protagonist can be described with those three words. Bird’s race shapes her, because this is America and we have a lot of problems surrounding race, particularly when it comes to African-Americans. But it’s not a novel about being black, and it’s not a novel that hearkens back to urban or street lit. This was a book that managed to do something unexpected: address race without being about race. It stars a privileged character of color for whom race is a — but not the only — definer, without falling into the opposite trap, where skin color is mentioned and then glossed over as if it doesn’t actually matter.

Then I reread it, after having heard from others that it’s too slow and not pacy enough for what they wanted, and realized I was looking at this all wrong. It’s not a spy/conspiracy thriller. It’s a near future science fiction novel that uses many of the aspects of a thriller to structure its plot. Science fiction asks big questions. Often it meditates on things like the human condition, the meaning of loyalty, and the evil of government and xenophobia, and THAT, my friends, is a much more accurate description of Love Is the Drug.

It’s also a book deeply concerned with racial identity and identity as a member of a group for whom appearance and status are so complexly interwoven. This is a book that looks headlong at what it means to be both black and wealthy. Bird is assimilated, she’s arrived — and she hates it. The pressure, the need to never be too black, to never be herself because anything less than overachieving is equated with being a slacker — this is a powerful indictment of the society we live in, delivered so organically in Bird’s voice. This is a narrative that belongs absolutely to Bird but recognizes that Bird is also, sadly, not atypical.

Here’s the exchange that brings it all home, between Bird and her mother — Bird has chopped off her relaxed, safe hair, leaving only her natural curls, cut short.

“…I’ll get a great new relaxer –”
“I like my hair.” She knew this moment had to come sometime, but she still feels assaulted.
“You’re too young to understand the world the way I do, so you have to trust me in this. Those sorts of seventies styles make people in the professional world uncomfortable.”
“You mean white people uncomfortable?”
“No, not necessarily, it’s about projecting the right image –”
“Because otherwise I’m too black?”

There are so many layers here. There’s the mother-daughter tension, which happens to center around issues related to race but is also just the seemingly inevitable tension between every mother and every daughter — a push-pull of love and control, anger and rebellion, between growing up to be yourself and growing up to please your parents. Then there’s Carol’s own baggage; she is a scientist and a she is black, she has worked so hard against a system doubly stacked against her to be someone who is rich and powerful, and she has given up so much to become those things (she has given up her moral compass too, although as a reader you don’t really know that at this point — so the idea that she has swallowed down some of herself in the name of success is foreshadowing the deeper understanding of who Carol Bird is and what she values). There’s Bird pushing back against her mother. And then there’s the dialogue about racial politics in America. All contained in a 6-line mother-daughter exchange.

This is a really smart, deep, carefully written book, and I’m so glad I read it a second time so I could appreciate the things that were initially obscured by the plot and the desire to know what the hell was happening, because this is a text that operates on multiple levels and not all of them are easily discernible at first glance.

I could probably leave it there, but I’d like to talk about more than just the big ideas.

So, let’s talk about the plot. Mystery and intrigue with teen protagonists can be tricky. How many teenagers, really, are tracking down serial killers, for example? But what works here is that the teens end up in the middle sort of by chance — Bird, trying to not be Emily, teases with a piece of information she’s gleaned from her parent’s trash, which she drops in front of an operative who is also sort of a sociopath, which results in her being questioned — and that’s what lands her in the middle of things. It’s the adults, the ones with the power, who pull her in, which is almost plausible. And then the adults underestimate the teens, which is also plausible. There’s also a romance piece of the plot and the identity formation stuff, which works. The one issue, as I already said, might be pacing, but I think that’s only problematic if you go into this buying the flap copy. Read it for what it is, and the pacing isn’t off.

I am still torn about the voice. Particularly the way the narrative is sometimes, suddenly, first person. It struck me as portentous and I wasn’t sure, on read one, if it worked, but do I think it’s a bold move to use voice to show rather than tell how conflicted Bird is. She’s emerging, and she’s having a hard time, and there’s some disassociation happening. I’m not sure I like the technique, but I think from a literary analysis perspective it’s worth admiration. What I am not torn about is Johnson’s amazing facility with language. She’s smart, her characters are smart, and there’s a lot of really intelligent, perfectly phrased writing here. It’s descriptive and arresting. It’s not quite showy, but it’s close. And it’s in the present tense, which doesn’t always work but here it does; we are with Bird as everything unfolds. The reader doesn’t have the looking back reassurance that it will all work out — maybe it won’t. That uncertainty allows the reader to feel some of the same shifting uncertainty that Bird and her friends feel, and it serves to increase the sense of tension that a thriller requires.

I’m going to stop myself now, because really I could just keep going and going. I need to think long and hard about where this falls for me — it’s been in my top 10-15 all along, and now the act of reading it more closely has me thinking it might be in my top 5. But I know that won’t be the popular opinion, so won’t you weigh in and tell me all the reasons you think I’m wrong? (And then I’ll tell you why you are wrong, of course, and we’ll go from there.)


About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I agree with absolutely everything you have to say about this book! I feel like it didn’t get nearly enough attention this year, and I was disappointed to see it on very few best of lists this year, too. I actually started reading it as a sci-fi novel addressing big issues, with the thriller aspect as a plot-mover and stuff. Just. This book was so good. I loved it. You said everything so well, too!

  2. I’m in full agreement–this was really smart and different. One of my favorites of the year, for sure. Glad y’all are giving it some attention.

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