Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson has a fairly standard sci-fi plot: A deadly flu mutates and begins killing thousands of people worldwide, causing international panic and war as the United States declares martial law at home. Then, in the middle of the chaos, a political conspiracy begins taking shape… etc., etc.
Then there’s Emily Bird, a senior at an elite prep school in Washington D.C., who has always bent to her mother’s will. Now, she’s facing a crisis of identity. Her handsome, popular boyfriend Paul should be everything she needs, but she can’t stop thinking about the class drug dealer, Coffee, who challenges her to be her own person. But after a party one night, she wakes up in a hospital days later with no memory of what happened to her, or why, and it’s up to her to figure out what happened – with Coffee’s help, of course – even as a creepy government agent warns her that her life and the lives of her parents depends on her staying ignorant.
This is the blackest book I’ve read in a long time. No, really. (And that’s actually a compliment!) All of the main characters are people of color, and although a lot of references to D.C. went over my head, the book offers analyses of respectability politics, colorism, and white as default that were refreshing. More than that, I was happy to see a diverse cast of POC living life, bonding, having petty squabbles… you know, being human. My favorite scene of the book was when Bird and her family (who are black) shared a Thanksgiving meal with Coffee (a light-skinned Brazilian) and introduced him to the magic that is Black Macaroni and Cheese. (“I always thought it was one of those weird American things, like funnel cakes,” Coffee says. “That cheesy mac shit isn’t real m’n’c, anyway,” her uncle says.) It really exemplified the main strength of the book, acknowledging, and embracing, cultural differences.
But the narration can be hard to get used to – it’s mainly third-person present in Emily’s POV, but it occasionally switches to the first-person perspective of her subconscious. Yes, you read that right. Of course, it’s not clear that that’s who (or what) it is until 100 pages into the book, which makes for some awkward backtracking. The most damning fault of the book, though, is that it’s too slow. You would expect a sci-fi thriller to move along at breakneck speed (at least, that’s the way I like them to be) but the book spends much more time on Emily’s self-doubts and relationship with Coffee than the political conspiracy. And after all the buildup, the climax left me disappointed. Tension is woven through the story because of the high stakes, yet the ultimate moment of terror turns out to be, not torture or bullets or the fatal flu strain, but hypothermia.
Not to mention I didn’t even particularly like Coffee much. It’s really hard to paint a guy as a heartthrob when his first appearance involves him snorting coke off a table. Yes, people say they can be drug addicts without messing up their teeth or losing the ability to function, but a hot, teenaged drug dealing chemistry genius? I ain’t buying it. (He IS extremely paranoid and has a permanent case of the jitters, though, so… yay for accuracy? Still not swooning.)
This is a really hard book to give a rating for. Johnson has a very lyrical writing voice and the character interaction is choice, but neither of those really stand up to the scope of the story. At the end of the day, though, I finished it. So I guess somewhere between 3 and 4 stars? Decisiveness for the win.