July 09, 2015

Thursday Review: LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Summary: I read this a while ago, and I've been terribly neglectful in writing up a review. This was my first experience reading one of Johnson's books, and I had high expectations after what I'd heard about The Summer Prince (reviewed here by Tanita), which I still need to read. Love Is the Drug did not disappoint—it was a political/sci-fi thriller about an all-too-believable virus epidemic, set in Washington D.C. in the world of prep-school teens.

But don't let the fancy schools and uniforms and wealthy parties at the houses of diplomats' children fool you: the story's got plenty of diversity, too, and engages with everyday teen issues and serious sociopolitical issues alike. And, ultimately, it's a page turner, with flashbacks and memory loss adding suspense to protagonist Emily Bird's increasingly urgent attempts to unravel the real story behind the epidemic—all while being harassed by homeland security, who are convinced she knows something because of her parents' scientific and political activities.

Peaks: There are huge peaks here: the suspense, the writing, the characterization, the diversity. Fans of thrillers, especially political ones, will really enjoy the pace and structure, although some reviewers pointed out that they guessed the story's twist earlier on than they would have liked. The scenario is a good one, though, and very timely in its references to current global politics and the ongoing fight against disease. It successfully plays on fears of pandemics and paranoia about government cover-ups to create an exciting premise and an action-packed plot.

The writing, appropriately, is confident and tight, and it provides an intriguing glimpse into the world of our nation's wealthy and powerful, and the privileged lives of their children. However, these are no cardboard cutouts: the characterization is fantastic, and depth and complexity to are added to protagonist Emily Bird's story with the inclusion of issues of race and class. Firstly, she is black at an overwhelmingly white school, and despite being from a family as educated and successful as anyone else's, there is a level of underlying tension, a sense of having something to prove that she and her few African American peers share, even if they share little else. As the plot thickens, Emily begins to gain a sense of her core self that is NOT connected to either her classmates or her parents, and issues of identity are tackled directly in a very interesting way.

Also, the characters with whom she connects the most closely have intriguingly unique stories of their own: Coffee, whose family is not nearly as well off and who is known as the local drug dealer, is far more than what he seems, and Marella, an outsider because of her sexual orientation, ends up becoming a close ally and confidante as Emily's own status drifts away from the inner circle.

Valleys: I'll freely admit that I find it hard to relate to boarding school stories or prep school stories because I did not have that experience growing up; as someone who almost exclusively attended public schools until I went to grad school, I admit to not only having trouble relating to stories about "rich kids' school," but also to having somewhat of a chip on my shoulder about the advantages that so easily come to those with wealth and privilege, those types of teens who are depicted in this story. So this isn't a valley so much as a personal prejudice, I suppose.

As I mentioned earlier, too, there are always risks when you write a story of suspense that is structured in such a way that the reader might possibly guess the outcome too early—and that did seem to happen for some readers.

Conclusion: This was an intense, gripping, fascinating story, both because of its glimpse into the lives of the DC elite and because of the wonderful writing. Highly recommended for suspense fans.

I bought my copy of this book as a Kindle ebook. You can find LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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