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Bildungsroman Thriller

Love is the Drug

By Alaya Dawn Johnson 

9 Feb, 2016

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2014’s Love is the Drug is my first exposure to the works of Alaya Dawn Johnson. 

If her mother has anything to say about the matter, seventeen-year-old Emily Bird is destined for an Ivy League university, to be followed by a suitable career and marriage. Anything that might threaten the grand design — looking too black for white people’s comfort, insufficiently exalted grades, any hint that Emily takes after her un-ambitious uncle, any hint of an interest in the Wrong Sort of Boy — earns firm parental disapproval. Nothing is going to come in the way of the right sort of life for Emily: not the terrorist-spread flu sweeping the world, not alluring bad boys like Emily’s fellow student Coffee, and certainly not Emily’s own preferences.

So far the grand plan has worked: Emily’s grades are good, she is demure and well-behaved, and her boyfriend Paul is just the sort of ambitious, well-connected boy Emily deserves. 

The plan holds together until the night of the party.

Emily wakes up in the hospital with a hole in her memory and the unwelcome attention of a shadowy figure in the American intelligence community. She has no recollection of events prior to her drug-induced blackout, but something must have happened to convince CIA contractor Roosevelt that she just might be a threat to US security. 

Her ambitious boyfriend Paul is no help. Paul plans to intern with Roosevelt, who can do more for him than Emily can (particularly now that Emily is under suspicion). Her parents cannot help; even if they were willing to support Emily despite teenage rebellion (which they are not), they have been carried off to an undisclosed location, where they can carry on their research safe from the spiraling health crisis that grips the world. 

Even bad-boy iconoclast and occasional drug pusher Coffee is not much help. He is just as much a target as Emily, and much more vulnerable.

Which means that Emily can only rely on herself. Not the old self, the quiet, utterly conventional Emily, but a new self: Bird. Bird is strong, self-possessed, and willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Emily must become Bird.


I am absolutely certain there are subtleties I missed in this book. I think I did pick up on the significance of Bird’s transformation. She rejects her mother’s determined efforts to turn her into the sort of black woman who will not threaten whites in any way; she embraces an African-American heritage that includes defiance and struggle. 

This book is more than a bildungsroman; it is a political thriller as well. If Bird fails in her quest to be a strong, independent woman AND if she fails to figure out what happened during her blackout, or why Roosevelt is interested in her .… she could end up a corpse in a shallow grave. Some very bad people think that she knows something that threatens them; there’s no way to convince them otherwise. The people on whom she should be able to depend are either, like Coffee, effectively powerless, or like Paul and her parents, so focused on their own ambitions that they will not or cannot help someone who might drag them down. 

Johnson shows a sure, deft touch in setting up the plot. Bird is effectively isolated. She is surrounded by enemies, human and otherwise: in addition to her struggle with the Intelligence community, she must deal a flu pandemic that threatens the whole world. Bird is in danger, and so is the society of which she is a part; it is no coincidence that the two crises reinforce each other, setting a harrowing atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

This taut thriller was so gripping that I kept sneaking it out of my book bag for quick, one-chapter sneak reads. That may not sound like a big deal, unless you know that I was, at the time, overseeing a Strike Party for a hundred people. This may have been, as I said, my first exposure to this author’s work, but it most certainly will not be my last.

Love is the Drug may be purchased here.