(2.5 stars) This was a tough book to read and will be a tough review to write. Love is the Drug is a very ambitious book that plots contemporary social issues and a story of developing one’s identity and independence against the background of a bioterrorist pandemic. Ultimately, I think Johnson just had too many ideas here and as a result several threads were underdeveloped and/or incoherent.
Emily Bird, who goes by Bird, is from an affluent black family in Washington DC. Her parents are renowned and respected scientists, and their influence in the District has landed her in a premier school and garnered her the “perfect” boyfriend and friends who collectively bolster each others’ social positions. Just the parts of this story, alone, were already complex: reading about the politics of being a young black woman in the upper middle class, trying to remain perfect and not rock the boat so as to stay palatable, be a “good” black girl — that’s all a valuable experience and perspective for me to absorb. So in a sense, the parts of the book that were the least high-concept, that just had to do with Bird coming to terms with the kind of person she wanted to be, and how that wasn’t exactly the same picture-perfect person her mother hoped she would be, those were the strongest parts of the story. They felt the most authentic, and resonated more with me.
What didn’t work as well was, unfortunately, just about everything else. There is a major romantic plot between Bird and Coffee, a boy at Bird’s school who we are introduced to kind of as a friend-of-a-friend to Bird. It doesn’t seem like they interact all that much or know each other that well, but Bird still has this affinity for him (and vice versa,), and before we know it suddenly he seems to understand her better than anyone else and is a key impetus for Bird embracing her inner “imperfect” self. There are seeds of a powerful relationship there, from the idea that someone else helps you realize your best self, to the knowledge that the other person will make extreme personal sacrifices for you — as Coffee does for Bird — but it all seems to come out of nowhere other than some significant glances across the room and one or two conversations where Bird seems almost as annoyed by Coffee as she is intrigued by him.
Finally, there is the whole element of the Venezuelan flu (v-flu) pandemic, which has a 5-10% mortality rate and was, as far as anyone knows, released into the wild by Venezuelan terrorists. But there is OBVIOUSLY more to this than meets the eye, because at the beginning of the outbreak Bird is harassed and, apparently, drugged and interrogated one night by a slick government operative who thinks Bird knows something — because of who her parents are, presumably. Bird can’t remember any of the interrogation, and has no idea what she said or what they think she knows, so she feels profoundly helpless and persecuted. So most of the book takes place while Bird and her peers are under quarantine, gravely concerned about the fate of the world, and Bird ALSO has a lot of understandable paranoia going on about being stalked and threatened by Agent Smith (actually Roosevelt David, but you know.)
And that’s where everything just gets muddied to death. I’m guessing Johnson must have felt that her story needed something other than a focus on Bird’s identity epiphany and love story, and I can respect that. But anything to do with the surveillance/Bird’s lost memory plot could have been deeply creepy and suspenseful; unfortunately, it’s so disjointed and so full of cliche threats from the Big Bad that it loses impact. Even weirder is the abrupt shifts in the text, without obvious section breaks, between the first person POV from Bird to an omniscient narrator POV that refers to Bird in the third person, but is also in her head and seemingly spits wisdom about the consequences of Bird’s actions. For its part, the resolution doesn’t retroactively improve any of the prior ambiguousness either, as it is predictable, still lacking support from earlier “clues”, and is delivered by a deus ex machina
<spoiler>(Bird’s absent father just shows up to hand her the smoking gun; “Sorry I haven’t been around!”)</spoiler>
Overall, I was plainly disappointed. But other readers have gotten more out of this than I did, and I did get value from reading a story with a black protagonist.