Lisa Tucker prefaces her novel with a quote from Dr. Seuss, which emphasizes the requirement to care a great deal in order to make the world a better place. It’s a poignant stage curtain to open on this story which begins with a high-powered executive’s opportunity to brush off a ten-year-old homeless boy and his three-year old sister.
Matthew Connelly is a vice president for pharmaceutical company Astor Denning, and is by all accounts successful and wealthy. He is walking across a bridge one November night in Philadelphia when a boy named Danny approaches him for help. Matthew, in an unusual state of mind, offers to help, which leads to a life entanglement from what was a mutually intended brief encounter.
Danny lives with his sister, Isabelle, and his mother, a drug addict. This ten-year-old boy is the man of the family and does what he can to take care of them. His life on the streets has provided wisdom beyond his years; he has panhandling down to a science.
Amelia, Matthew’s ex-girlfriend from college and now professional arch-nemesis, is a journalist whose articles regularly attack the ethics of big pharmaceutical companies. She is obsessed with both the evil of Astor Denning and the memories of her and Matthew’s past love life.
The Cure for Modern Life is fueled by a theme of ethics. Tucker’s characters are constantly barraged with the debate of doing the right thing. They play a game called “What If?” asking each other moral questions like “Would you strangle a kitten to save ten thousand acres of rain forest?” Matthew, Amelia and the third member of their triangulated relationship, Ben, spend a great deal of time arguing about ethics and saving the world. But Danny, who doesn’t have a philosophy degree, seems to stick to his principles better than his college-educated counterparts. These adults have a lot to learn about integrity from children who act on their principles rather than talk about it. Children keep it simple because they haven’t been influenced by big business and big politics and big money. Yet.
While parts of the story are heartwarming and moving, the story structure is occasionally jarring. The beginning of the story moves us back and forth between Matthew and Danny’s perspectives too quickly for comfort. And while a novel does not necessarily need to be linear, the chronology of this story is a little jumpy and sometimes difficult to follow. Sometimes the flashbacks disrupt and confuse rather than enhance or complete the story.
The main characters are definitive, passionate and well-drawn. Tucker speaks from their differing and distinct points of view, including little Danny, with equal credibility. While the story is slightly predictable, it is plausible and the level of humor seems to increase as the story progresses. The suspense devices are blatant, however, and leave the reader feeling like she does after a news program’s lead-in to commercials. It’s frustrating to read words like “that night” and “it” and “that thing.” What thing? Why throw it in our face like that? If the mystery had arisen more organically, it wouldn’t feel so manipulative. It’s as if the author doesn’t have enough belief in the story to keep us reading. And if she doesn’t believe in it, how are we supposed to feel about it?
The Cure for Modern Life is thought-provoking, though, in that it throws out many ethical questions. It takes the debate of the right thing to do to another level. Do you do the right thing right now for yourself at the expense of a larger, potentially global good? While the answer to that question from a distance may seem obvious to some, it’s different when you are in it, and this story helps describe what it’s like to be in that situation, enough to ask yourself: What would I do?