Emily Bird—Bird to her friends—is the viewpoint character of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s amazing young adult novel LOVE IS THE DRUG (Scholastic, 2014). Bird is an African-American teenaged-girl in her senior year at a prestigious Washington, DC, prep school. Bird has selected Stanford as her college of choice, much to her mother’s dismay. Emily’s parents are wealthy and prominent enough, and Bird’s grades and SAT scores good enough, to get her into any college she desires. Bird is borderline upper-crust, and she has ambivalent feelings about her pretentious mother and social-climbing classmates. He isn’t even sure she wants to go to college. But if she does continue her education, someplace far from her parents is preferable.
I love reading well-written YA fiction. I prefer to think of Love is the Drug as more a coming-of-age novel where characters are forced to make real choices for the first times in their lives, and they finally have to grow up or die. Characters in YA novels refreshingly question everything and everyone. They’re raw material being molded by events and the environment and whatever nurture they may have experienced in the past. Their hormones often get the better of their judgment. And they’re in a constant state of becoming, just like people in real life.
What Bird is becoming is scared to death. A new strain of flu, more virulent than the 1918 swine flu epidemic, is killing people world-wide. The American government claims the flu was engineered by terrorists, most likely from Venezuela or Iran, and directed at Americans. The President has declared martial law. Washington, DC, where Bird lives and is nearly half-way through her senior year at an elite DC prep school where the daughter of the Vice President of the United States is also a student, has quarantined sections of the city and instituted a nightly curfew. Students become virtual prisoners at the school. Bird’s parents are biochemists who work for the US government, and they are out of town on a secret mission. Their jobs are so top-secret Bird knows nothing about what they do nor where they work. When Bird innocently lets slip, during a party she attends with her boyfriend Paul, that she knows the actual name of the company her parents allegedly work for, government contractor and secret agent Roosevelt David takes a special interest in Bird and Bird’s friend Coffee. Coffee is the son of a Brazilian diplomat stationed in Washington, and he is a whiz at chemistry and notorious for dealing drugs to other students at school.
Bird wakes from a coma eight days after the party. She finds herself in the hospital with stitches in her head and an IV in her arm. She remembers little of what happened the night of the party. Was she drugged? Did Coffee drug her? Did Paul? Did Roosevelt David? Why?
The mystery deepens. Is Bird paranoid or is there a real conspiracy going on?
Love is the Drug is filled with great imagery and decent dialogue. The character insights are interesting. Sometimes even adults act like children, and sometimes children are more adult than they get credit for.
Identity is a recurring theme in this novel. Is one defined by family? By friends? By color? By education? By age? By sexual orientation?
What’s in a name? Would a bird, by any other name, be able to fly?
If you love science fiction or a good mystery or a well-wrought apocalyptic tale full of secrets and delusions and paranoid speculations, then Love is the Drug is a book you want to read. It’s not perfect, but the story is superbly crafted. The human conflicts—both internal and external—seem real. The conspiracies seem plausible. The book may be a tad too long and might benefit from some selective editing near the end. But by then you’re so hooked you don’t want the novel to end and the final twists and turns of the plot keep the pages turning. Although this novel is suitable for young adults, it’s not a juvenile book by any means. It’s adult fiction at its finest.