It’s rare a book surprises me with what it has to offer. There are a lot of good reads and a lot of interesting, insightful, exciting characters and stories. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s rare when a book hits on a topic that is so rich with something that just feels new, and it’s not just about being new, it’s about being important, too.
James Klise’s debut Love Drugged may make my short list in 2010 for favorite read. The back of the book has a question as its copy: If you could change who you are, would you? Should you? That’s the entire crux of this book.
Jamie Bates, a 15-year-old Chicago native, lives in the same condo as his grandparents do, as his mother and father can’t keep a stable job (though to be fair, they’re working at gift wrapping and shipping at the time). He just wants to get through high school and get on with his life. It’s rough in the high school world, but he’s been lucky: no one knows the biggest secret about him — he’s gay. No, no one knows the secret because he spends a lot of time with Celia Gomez, one of the most attractive girls in school. She has a total crush on him, and he might have one on her too. They might be dating too. It’s not super clear to him, either.
When Jamie spends more time with Celia, he learns that her father is a druggist (by that, he creates pharmaceutical drugs to help with different physical ailments). And eventually, he learns that her father is working on an experimental drug to help cure gay people of their homosexual feelings and beliefs. It changes the brain chemistry — or at least that’s what the goal is. Despite not knowing the side effects, the dosage, or the consequences involved in such a drug, Jamie steals some in an attempt to keep fitting in and sliding by in school.
Love Drugged is a well-paced book and one that almost feels straight out of the headlines. Klise spoke at the Anderson’s YA Conference I attended, and he was told by his editor that the story was funny. He wasn’t so sure about that assessment, and I’m going to agree: I don’t really think that this is a “funny” book. There are certainly funny moments, and I think many teens might get a humorous feeling out of some of the events that happen (not to mention Jamie’s parents and the job situation therein), but this is a book with a lot of depth and a lot of issues with which to grapple.
What really stands out in this book is Jamie as a character. It’s rare to read such a real character, but Jamie here is one. He has all of the feelings of insecurity and the despite to just “slide by” like a typical teenager, but it’s also real that he’s troubled with the knowledge he’s gay. He doesn’t dislike being gay, but he also doesn’t want to be loud and proud about it. That idea scares him, as is seen in an episode where he finds out someone he’s been talking with through a few gay chat rooms is another student in his school. Fear permeates. Likewise, Jamie’s decision to take the drugs is less about the wanting to not be homosexual than it is about just wanting to get by without trouble. Jamie has fantasies and dreams and goals like all other teens, and I think Klise has a rare ability here to make a very real and relatable main character.
Dialog works well in this book, and I particularly found a lot of the character interactions worthy of consideration (and worthy of discussion). When Celia’s dad talks frankly with Jamie about the purpose of the drug, I think there are a million discussion points worthy of being made. Celia’s father is *not* against homosexuals; instead, he said he chooses to work on this project in order to help homosexuals fit in. In the back of my mind as a reader, I could buy that but I could also buy the thought swimming in Jamie’s mind about the potential profit from such a “miraculous” product. Jamie, at the end, thinks back on this but is able to now consider the ethical issue of whether it’s okay to change who he fundamentally is or not.
Is this the perfect book? Of course not. I found some of the characters to be more furniture like than fully fleshed and some were used merely as a way to move along a subplot. However, our three main characters — Jamie, Celia, and Celia’s father — along with the engaging, sometimes enraging, situations make this work so well. I’m not a terribly interactive reader, but I found myself at times talking to Jamie as he did or thought through things. And boy, did this book feel refreshing and different after the string of dead parent stories I’ve read lately.
Love Drugged brings up some politically delicate issues but does so in a manner that allows teens to think for themselves and ones which homosexual teens will understand 150% because they live them every day. This is the kind of book we need to see more of. It’s an empowering book, and one that will linger in the minds of readers for a long, long time.
If you’re a librarian, please add this to your library. The cover will hook readers, but the content will keep their minds hooked.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).