Lisa Tucker


"The Cure for Modern Life"

(reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew MAR 19, 2008)

"Was Matthew Connelly a bad man?"

That's the first sentence of The Cure for Modern Life: "Was Matthew Connelly a bad man?" It is promptly followed by, "He'd never once asked himself that question."

More universally, the central question of the novel could be summed up as: Is everyone in modern America a commodity just waiting to be exploited? However, The Cure for Modern Life touches on many orbiting 21st-century issues: drug abuse, both hardcore and recreational; the perennial have/have not dichotomy; children's rights; prenatal testing ethics; the debate about the marketing strategies adopted by behemothic drug companies; the limits of friendships; and the question of whether marriage is merely a utility. Tucker bundles this conglomeration of hot button issues together as if to say: Hey, book clubs, The Cure for Modern Life has it all.

And it pretty much does. Just be aware that Tucker's new novel about the disruption of a busy pharmaceutical executive's life by two practically homeless children bats the reader around like a ping pong ball. Read a few pages and feel uncomfortable. Read some more and get a shot of the warm fuzzies. Press onward and confusion sets in. Then revulsion arises, only to be superceded by the warm fuzzies again. That's the way it is with these characters of Lisa Tucker's. They all have their undeniably kind, even noble, moments, but in practically the next breath, their motives can turn shady and manipulative. Some readers will revel in this storytelling approach, some may not.

The first chapter opens by the side of Matthew Connelly who has spent years shepherding a new wonder drug into the marketplace for Astor-Denning. Tomorrow he would board a plane to Japan to correct some misinformation about the product, Galvenar. But tonight, late, he is walking home from a dinner engagement, slightly stoned, when a boy steps into his path on the bridge near his building and yells and cries, " 'Help! Please, Mister! My baby sister! Help!' "

Ten-year-old Danny (actually christened "Cobain" after you know who) has dubbed himself a gallant, if belated, knight of King Arthur's court. His underdeveloped three-year-old sister, Isabelle, is sick and needs Emetrol and Gatorade, so he performs his "sacred duty" and targets and accosts a man whose clothes peg him as affluent.

When rubbery-legged Matthew finally consents to help the ragged kids, their druggie mother materializes and tags along. In his apartment, after he fetches the medicine and Gatorade, Matthew is too weary to shoo the little band out immediately. When he wakes in the morning, the children are asleep on the floor, but their mother has vanished...with his spare $5000 in cash.

Thus begins a leery, tentative association between the medical doctor whose time-consuming job is his life, the street-wise boy who loves his sister, and adorable little Isabelle who takes a rapid shine to Matthew.

Also in the mix are Amelia and Ben, a couple for whom Matthew played matchmaker, even though Ben is his best friend and Amelia the woman he, Matthew, had formerly lived with and loved. In old screwball comedy style (though with a darker twist), a series of incredible plots pile on. Ben, the brilliant research scientist; Amelia, the think-tanker who scorns as evil the drug companies and those who do their bidding; and Matthew who prides himself on managing his protocols scrupulously can not reconcile their respective views of life. They struggle in their dysfunctional threesome and, consequently, sweep needy Danny and Isabelle into their drama.

All the characters often have endearing moments, only to ruin them. At one point, Matthew wonders "why Danny seemed to just expect that Matthew would do something cruel to him eventually." He can't see any "reason whatsoever for Danny's attitude." Even though Matthew has his "good surrogate parent" times with the youngsters, the reader might snort at this unctuous self-delusion because Matthew's short-tempered outbursts, his scary bout of silent depression, and his flagrant bargaining with and for the children for his own ends more than justify Danny's caution.

Yet out of this seeming ethical wasteland and emotional jumble, the characters succeed in gaining the sympathy and perhaps even empathy of the readers (at least this reader). Danny can con with the best of them to try to gain some stability and permanence for his sister and himself, but we can forgive him his calculating ways more easily than we can the adults. We care about these remarkable kids. Tucker's novel also gets us to care about Matthew, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Amelia and Ben. When it comes to life, they're all on a pretty steep learning curve, and the question becomes whether they will adjust their value systems to see the world realistically and yet compassionately, and whether they will stop seeing everything as vendible and will deal with greater honesty and love.

In the last chapter Amelia shifts out of her good/evil perspective, " 'Good is meaningless in the modern world.' " Matthew quickly counters, " '...good is not meaningless, and you know that, or you will....' " Is he ready to be introspective and pose that query about himself now? Matthew and everyone else in The Cure for Modern Life aren't wholly "bad," but their relativistic means of getting through life do provide fodder aplenty for book club discussions and lone reader rumination.

Tucker juggles her many thematic balls with a lithe, cinematic touch. Anyone who enjoys contemporary novels about memorable characters in socially relevant dilemmas is encouraged to dig into The Cure for Modern Life.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Cure for Modern Life at SimonSays.com

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"Shout Down the Moon"

(reviewed by Kam Aures MAY 15, 2004)

"I know he's coming. His sentence was seven years, but after less than three, he's made parole. Mama sends me the news on one of her yellow stickies: FYI, with the date he's being released -- June 3, 1991 -- circled several times in thick black pen.

On the phone I remind her of the letter I sent him after Willie was born, explaining I wouldn't be writing anymore, it was over between us. I talk as though I believe the letter convinced him, and change the subject while she is still feeling relieved.

For weeks I expect him to show up at the club. Sometimes I peer out into the blackness of the audience, wondering if his eyes are on me, if he is listening."

Patty Taylor is a single mother of two-year-old Willie. Patty and and her son travel on the road with a band that doesn't think very highly of her. Patty was hired by their manager Fred to make the group more popular and because of this there is a bit of resentment shown towards her from her band mates.

Willie's father, Rick Malone, has just been released from prison where he served three years on drug charges and Patty has no desire to see him again. However, one day shortly after Rick is released he shows up at the hotel that the band is staying at shattering Patty's wish tonever see him again. From this point forward he is a part of her life again whether she wants him to be or not.

Patty's problems stem much deeper than Rick's recent release from prison. Her mother is a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic who has worn down Patty's self-esteem until it is almost non-existent. Because Patty has lost all respect for herself she puts up with anything and lets herself be walked all over. Throughout the course of the novel, motivated by her love for her son, we see her slowly getting her strength back and learning to love herself.

Lisa Tucker's second novel has a lot of similarities to her first book The Song Reader. Both stories are centered around the main theme of music and both deal heavily with the topic of motherhood. One difference between the novels is that Shout Down the Moon contains an element of suspense that holds your interest and keeps you involved until the end. The Song Reader, while an excellent novel, does not draw you in as much as this second book does.

One thing that I found interesting in the "Up Close and Personal with Lisa Tucker" section in the back of the book is Tucker's reluctance to make her characters face difficulties. When asked whether she knew when she started writing the book the hardships that Patty would face, her response was, "No, and actually, I'm very resistant to making any of my characters suffer. Sometimes I find myself unable to write for days when I realize that something bad is about to happen to one of the people in my books. Of course you have to let these things happen or you don't have a story. You have to let the plot go in whatever direction it wants to go, even if it means your characters will go through tragedy." I am glad that Tucker did allow an element of tragedy in her novel because in my mind that is what most keeps the reader involved in this story.

Shout Down the Moon is an excellent novel and I am sure it will be as highly acclaimed, if not more so, as her first novel. Rumor has it that her next novel will be published in hard cover rather than trade paperback -- surely this is a vote of confidence in the writer by her publishers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Shout Down the Moon at the author's website

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"The Song Reader"

(Reviewed by Kam Aures MAY 28 2003)

"My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Song reading was her term for it and she invented the art as far as I know. It was kind of like palm reading, she said, but instead of using hands, she used music to read people's lives. Their music. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones that they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to ..."

The Song Reader is told through the eyes of teenage LeeAnn who lives with her older sister Mary Beth and Mary Beth's adopted son, Tommy, in a small Southern town. LeeAnn's father left when she was young and five years later her mother was killed in a car accident. Mary Beth earns money to support LeeAnn and Tommy by working at a restaurant and by doing "song readings." Mary Beth starts to date Ben, a customer who has had a traumatic life experience, as she eases Ben's pain, they fall in love. LeeAnn feels that they seem to be perfect for each other, observing that their love even survives when Ben moves away to continue his schooling. However, unexpectedly one day they break up leaving LeeAnn to wonder what happened.

Read excerptMary Beth's customers value her opinions and often act upon her advice with excellent results. But when one customer, Holly, follows Mary Beth's advice, the results are disastrous. Holly, Mary Beth, and LeeAnn's lives are changed in more ways than can be imagined.

The focus of family is a central theme in the novel. Stories and flashbacks to their mother and father are plentiful throughout the book. A missing piece in LeeAnn's life is that she has not seen her father in many years and wishes to do so. She finds out through reading Ben's old letters to Mary Beth that Mary Beth knows where their father is. From these letters, LeeAnn obtains their father's address and seeks to find him. To me, the father-daughter relationship is one of the most interesting parts of the novel. The father has a form of mental illness and it is intriguing to see how he reacts to a daughter that he has not seen or talked to in a long time.

Throughout all of this, LeeAnn finds a love of her own, but the relationship is not an easy one. Mike, her boyfriend is Holly's son; LeeAnn's family is scorned by Mike's grandparents because of the advice that Mary Beth gave Holly.

The Song Reader is a very unique, fast-moving novel. It is refreshing to see an author some up with a concept as creative and unusual as "song reading." In the "Up Close and Personal with the Author" section at the end of the book, Lisa Tucker explains how she came up with the idea. "The specific idea of song reading came to me about ten years ago, when I became interested in psychology, especially how memory works. When it hit me that the songs people remember may say something about them, I decided to test the theory on my family and friends, just like Mary Beth does in the novel."

After reading The Song Reader, I find myself thinking about the songs that I remember from when I was young and trying to decipher what they mean. Lisa Tucker's novel is a very creative, thought-provoking book and will stick with you once the last page is done. Her next novel will also be centered on music; however, in the upcoming book, the story will be told through the eyes of a performer, rather than from the viewpoint of a music listener.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 54 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Song Reader at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

 

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About the Author:

Lisa TuckerLisa Tucker grew up in small towns outside of Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri. She has toured the Midwest with a jazz band, and worked as a computer programmer, waitress, writing teacher, office cleaner, and math professor. She has a graduate degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and a graduate degree in math from Villanova University, with advanced study at Bryn Mawr College. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including The Philadelphia Inquirer.

She used to live in the mountains of northern New Mexico, but now lives with her family in Philadelphia.

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