Arthur Hailey's newest roman-a -American-industry is a long paean to the people who give us better things for better living through drugs. "Strong Medicine" is the putative inside story of the pharmaceutical industry, "revealing," proclaims its advance publicity, "the machinations of a business where millions of dollars and millions of lives hang on every decision."
Much as "Airport" and "Hotel" and "Wheels" did their bits for airports, hostelries and cars, "Strong Medicine" reassures us that all is well with the American way, despite a glitch here or there, such as, in the instance here, Thalidomide and various other potentially disastrous products and practices. Never mind, most of these are the products of individual human villainy, not machinations of the industry at all.
Unabashedly, Hailey tells us in his preface that the book's heroine is at least reminiscent of his wife, which makes it perhaps a bit outre' to suggest that "Strong Medicine" protagonist Celia Jordan may be a little too good to be true. She is attractive, of course -- what Hailey heroine isn't? -- but also brilliant, intuitive, innovative, sensitive, loyal, feminine and witty. She is conscious to the point of ennui of her singularity as a loophole lady in an all-male domain. But she is, Hailey is quick to tell us, no feminist.
Celia Jordan is worshiped and adored by most everyone in the novel, except the "bad guys," who are instantly identifiable by their perverted response to her charms. But to those gentle readers who meet her along the way, she is a crashing bore.
Nothing that goes wrong with the drug company she eventually heads is ever her fault -- or the fault of the system. It is paragon Celia who prevents Fielding-Roth -- her company -- from jumping on the Thalidomide bandwagon, but she isn't so lucky in keeping the company's own anti-morning sickness drug ("Montayne") off the market a decade and The reviewer writes a column for The Washington Post Health section. a half later. Not her fault, of course, but that of an embittered and mostly failed research director who blackmails an alcoholic FDA official.
(Oh yes, in the reality of "Strong Medicine," the Food and Drug Administration is much less sturdy than the industry with which it must deal. Foot-dragging on the one hand; susceptible to blackmail on the other.)
Celia meets her husband when, as a neophyte in the business, she manages to lay her hands on an unapproved, experimental drug that she sees at once will save the life of an otherwise doomed patient of this terribly attractive physician. It is the terribly attractive physician whom she marries, and they live happily ever after, more or less, despite everything else that goes on.
At one point along the way the perfect Celia suddenly hops into bed with a scientist she discovered in England who has set out to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, with which his mother is afflicted. This one-night stand is designed, I suppose, to show us that dear Celia is human, but it is jarringly out of character.
There is precious little real action in this latest Hailey potboiler. Indeed the pot never gets much past simmer. Celia's own character is too pure to be burdened by much conflict in her personal life.
Oh sure, the company official -- her mentor, who won't listen to her concerns about Montayne -- kills himself after his daughter gives birth to a grandchild brain-damaged by the drug, but that was predictable, and the character was so one-dimensional that you really don't care.
And oh yes, there is a sadistic research scientist who lets the laboratory mice suffer, and British animal rights people are depicted as mindless vandals, but that all takes about three pages.
The wicked scientist's life's work turns out to be a dud, whereas the good scientist (the one who beds Celia) marries a humane lab assistant, lives happily ever after and discovers a peptide that not only cures Alzheimer's, but is also both a safe weight-loss drug and a powerful aphrodisiac.
Now that might be strong medicine. "Strong Medicine," however, isn't.