A FEW WEEKS AGO, when my husband went to have dinner with a colleague, I decided to get take-out from my favorite Greek restaurant. I was halfway home with my food in a paper bag when I realized I didn’t have my cell phone with me anymore. I went home anyway to get my iPad, which has the app “Find my Phone” on it, thinking that at the very least I could learn whether my phone was still in the area or if someone had pickpocketed me (seemed unlikely) and then absconded with it.
But good news: I discovered that my cell phone was still near the restaurant on Divisidero Street, which is a very busy street in San Francisco. But when I got there I couldn’t find it. I tried sending an alert to my phone but the street was so noisy that I couldn’t hear it. Also, “Find my Phone” needs wifi, which of course I didn’t have once I left my house.
I probably spent nearly an hour walking up and down two city blocks looking for that phone. But I found help everywhere. A hair salon gave me access to their wifi. A liquor store owner called my phone number several times both from a landline and his own personal cell phone. A teenage boy who was working at his father’s pizza parlor patiently helped me set up “My phone is lost” (I had to go back to the hair salon and its wifi to activate it, however). Random shop customers, overhearing my story, bade me good luck in cheerful voices.
Finally, I asked a man in a camel-colored coat, who had just parked his car where I’d originally parked mine, if he’d seen it. No, but I could look under his car if I wanted. I’d searched there before but I looked again. After a minute I heard a “Whoo-wit”— a kind of Hey, you! call. I turned around. And there was the man in his camel-colored coat holding up my phone. It was cracked to bits, clearly run over by multiple cars, and someone had placed it out of (more) harm’s way up on the fire hydrant.
I was exuberant. But the phone was finished.
The Physician’s Daughter is about a young woman in 1865 who wants to become a doctor like her father. Naturally I did a lot of research on female doctors of that era, and I found that nearly every one had fathers or husbands who championed them. My character, Vita Tenney, had no such champion, at least at first. But she is persistent in following her dream and finds help from other sources; including a doctor who’d been drummed out of the Civil War, fellow boarding house residents, and, eventually, her estranged husband. As I developed the story I thought a lot about all the obstacles Vita would face, and I carefully built these into the plot. But the help she receives from unexpected places—well, many of these came as a surprise, even to me.
The Physician’s Daughter is about persistence and ambition, sure, but it’s also about community. This is where Vita finds so much help, and it’s also what her estranged husband, a damaged war veteran, is unconsciously looking for. The morning after my cell phone adventure, I woke up knowing that I will need to buy a new phone—but the experience actually landed on the plus side for me. Although at first Vita was only interested in the science of medicine, by the end, like these random Divisidero Street strangers, Vita helps people because she wants to help them.
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