THE CURE FOR MODERN LIFE by Lisa Tucker
was driving in Philadelphia one night when I saw a young boy, holding a
small child, standing on a bridge. I slowed down long enough to realize
that their mother was with them, a few steps ahead, yelling for them to
hurry, but I wondered what I would have done if they really had been
alone. Would I have stopped to help them? Maybe they were walking to a
homeless shelter; it was a very cold night. Would I have given them a
ride—or money—or something—or would I have been too afraid?
From this personal dilemma, the novel was born.
When I created Matthew Connelly, I wanted him to be the kind of person
who would never help a homeless kid. I made him rich, self-involved, and
deeply cynical. That he also turned out to be funny was a surprise to
me. I didn’t expect to laugh as Matthew explained why you can’t trust
people like Danny, the ten-year-old boy in my novel who needs help for
his three-year-old sister, Isabelle. Of course Matthew turns out to be
wrong about Danny, though the boy certainly does disrupt Matthew’s
carefully ordered world. The relationship between the two of them is at
the heart of the story, and was one of my favorite parts to write.
As the novel progressed, the central question of “Would you do the right
thing?” led to other ethical questions—and other characters. Though
Matthew mentions Amelia on the first page, I didn’t realize that she
would be a narrator until she started talking, telling me the history of
her relationship with Matthew and her reasons for disliking the man she
thinks he has become in the last twelve years. Amelia detests what she
sees as the “sleazy business practices” of the pharmaceutical industry
and specifically of Astor-Denning, the drug company where Matthew is a
VP. She chose her job writing about medical ethics the same way she has
chosen everything in her life—because she wants to be a good person.
Matthew thinks she is naïve. She thinks he’s corrupt. Danny thinks both
of them are incredibly lucky because they have warm houses and thick
coats and enough money that they never have to worry about where their
next meal is coming from.
All of my books have touched on the topic of what it’s like to be poor
in America, and in The Cure for Modern Life, I explore this not only
through Danny and his family, but also through Matthew, who grew up poor
and has been driven for the last twenty years to make something of
himself. Both Matthew and his best friend Ben, a brilliant scientist,
also lost their fathers at an early age, and this is another central
theme in all my work: the legacy of a troubled family and specifically,
what it means to be a good parent. Matthew and Ben will both have to
confront the question of what becoming a father means to them, while
Danny, fatherless for his entire life, has already taken on the
responsibility of being the primary caregiver for his little sister. I
am always fascinated by the tenacity of bonds between siblings—no doubt
because my own sister has been such a central figure in my life.
The importance of place in a story is something I never lose sight of:
place being more than just a setting for the action, but a determining
factor in who the characters are and how they live. This is my first
book set in Philadelphia, my adopted city, where I went to college and
grad school, where I taught for almost a decade, and where my son was
born. I love this city. It’s such a wonderfully diverse place; it’s also
home to many pharmaceutical companies and some really brilliant people
who work in scientific research. Like Matthew, I came here trying to
make something of myself and stayed here because it felt like home.
Finally, music, which has played a role in all my novels, also plays a
small but key role here, as both a means of communication and even an
aid to memory. I might as well confess that, like Danny, I adore my iPod.
That little device has gotten me through some very tough situations.
Having music available at all times, anywhere, is truly an amazing gift.
The book is about taking responsibility, caring about others, and what
it means to do the right thing—but it is also about the complexities of
living in the twenty-first century, when we often feel like we can
barely handle our own problems and it’s rarely clear what the right
thing is, much less how to go about doing it. So is there a “cure for
modern life” in this novel? All I will say is that by the end of the
book, Matthew and Amelia and Danny and even Ben have figured out what
they want most in life. They’ve discovered that stopping on a bridge for
a stranger can lead you to make choices that you’ve forgotten you had.
They’ve each learned that sometimes, the right thing is right in front
of you, if only you care enough to look.
Maybe the epigraph expresses it best. The novel is peppered with quotes
from children’s books, both because Danny and Isabelle are so important
to the story and because children’s books have always been concerned
with ethical issues like how to be a good person. The epigraph is from
The Lorax, one of my son’s favorite Dr. Seuss books: UNLESS someone like
you, cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
So the “cure” is within each one of us, according to Dr. Seuss. We all
have to care “a whole awful lot.” Sounds like an excellent place to
start. I won’t even try to top that.