'No parent is perfect': CT writer's book focuses on life with 'The Other Mother'

Photo of Amanda Cuda

A story about a teenager grappling with feelings of depression, isolation and fear seems made for these times, when so many people are feeling lost and alone due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting quarantines.

But Newington resident Matthew Dicks says his latest novel “The Other Mother,” which comes out Jan. 12, was written long before the pandemic. Dicks, 49, says the book — a story about a boy who believes his mother has been suddenly replaced unbeknownst to everyone but him — was supposed to come out a year ago.

However, he was told to focus on another project of his, the list-based novel “Twenty-One Truths About Love,” which came out last year, instead. But, Dicks says, he realizes that “The Other Mother” might feel especially relevant now.

“I think a lot of people think this was written in quarantine and I’ll let them think that if they want,” quips Dicks.

On a more serious note, he says, though the book’s theme of feeling lost and alone may speak to general audiences more than it might have a year or two ago, he says there’s one group to whom the topics “The Other Mother” deals with are always relevant.

“The we’ve been feeling during the pandemic — that’s the way a lot of kids feel all the time,” Dicks says.

In addition to writing, Dicks is also a fifth grade teacher at Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford, but much of the backstory of Michael, the protagonist of “The Other Mother” comes from Dicks’s own life.

“I was the oldest of five in an exceptionally dysfunctional home,” he says. “I always felt like the third adult in the family.”

Like Dicks, Michael is the oldest sibling (of three, not five) in a troubled family. His father has died and his mother remarried a man that Michael and his siblings don’t like. Michael is regularly put in charge of his two younger siblings, whom he loves and resents at the same time.

With so much on his emotional plate, Michael is already grappling with anger and depression when he decides that his mother has gone missing and that an identical substitute has taken her place.

Dicks says the book’s central conflict comes from a condition he heard about years ago, called Capgras syndrome, in which someone believes a person they love has been replaced with an impostor. “I was in the car one day and I heard an NPR story on Capgras and thought ‘Gosh, what a terrible thing to happen to someone,” he says.

He decided to take the idea of that condition and use it to tell a story about parents and children, and the ways they can both hurt and heal each other. “I like the idea of forgiving your parents for their mistakes,” Dicks says. “No parent is perfect.”

Meanwhile, Dicks, like everyone else, has continued to adjust to living during a pandemic. Though “Other Mother” wasn’t written in quarantine, he has completed a book during the pandemic, and says it’s been a particularly productive time for him as a writer.

As a teacher, he says his school just switched over to remote learning the week before winter break, and he’s somewhat struggling with it. “It’s really hard,” Dicks says. “I miss being in the classroom. If you asked me last year, ‘How does working at home sound to you?’ I’d have said it sounded great. But it’s really hard.”

acuda@ctpost.com; Twitter: @AmandaCuda