Love Is the Drug

The perfect Devonshire Academy girl, gifted with the privilege of class and education, Emily Bird lives in the stratified world of Northwest D.C.  But her dreams of becoming a shopkeeper in the District on U Street don’t align with Carol Bird’s aspirations for her daughter.  Conversations with her mother make seventeen-year-old Emily feel like being skinned alive.  To further complicate her life, Emily is attracted to Alonso Oliveira, the prep school drug dealer, a Brazilian boy also known as Coffee, but she is already dating Paul.  Although Paul is safe, ambitious, and well-connected, he doesn’t generate any sparks for Emily.  Coffee calls Emily out when she regurgitates opinions rather than thinking for herself.  With Coffee, she never has to pretend.  In addition, Emily is more like one of the guys, so Coffee calls her Bird.

While attending a party where the “connected” get internships and job offers, Coffee and Bird discuss the terrorist flu of 8/16 and the United States’ record of bioterrorism involvement.  At the time, Bird accuses Coffee of being a conspiracy nut, and she rejoins Paul.  But the evening ends badly, with Bird hospitalized and unable to remember.  Although her power is her memory, it has been erased by a dissociative—a redacted form of GHB, the date rape drug.  With a hole in her memory and suspicions that Paul is somehow responsible, Emily is afraid.  Events of that night, and then a mysterious email, further complicate her life, so she struggles to piece together the clues since no one will provide a clear answer to the events of that fateful night when she made some unlikely friends as well as some powerful enemies, namely Roosevelt David.

When D.C. is infiltrated by crop dusters spewing a pestilential mist, the school goes into lockdown conditions.  Now, helicopters and soldiers with automatic rifles hover.  Although Emily digs deeply for courage, she wonders, what’s the point of being brave, if it destroys you?  She also wonders whether her own parents are responsible for the pandemic Venezuelan flu, the v-flu.  After all, her father has a PhD in chemistry and her mother’s is in molecular biology, and they both work for the government.  As scientists learn about the world, governments often use that knowledge for good or bad ends.

With knowledge her only weapon in this fight, Emily claws for clues against a series of nemeses: memory loss, migraines, anxiety, insomnia, fear, harassment, corruption, life threats, and lack of agency.  Feeling angry, insecure, confused, worried, and essentially abandoned by her über-professional parents, Emily juggles all of these issues while still attempting to cope with the typical challenges of adolescent life: building and preserving peer relationships, applying for colleges, attempting to find harmony amidst family discord, and falling in love—which feels like a loaded gun.  The weight of all of these burdens makes Bird feel vulnerable and empty, like “a cracked shell covered with a crude, Emily-shaped mâché” (122).

Both frightening and bittersweet, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novel, Love is the Drug explores the very real and near possibility of bio threats.  The science-minded reader will appreciate the chapter titles, which are all chemical formulas with relevant ties to the content.  As readers experience the myriad of Emily’s emotions, they will assess whether Emily emerges as intelligent, capable, and independent or as beaten, lost, and incompetent like her Uncle Nicky.

  • Posted by Donna

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