My Real Children by Jo Walton
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.
Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?”
I absolutely adored Walton’s previous novel Among Others, and so I eagerly picked up this one. I found it to be odd, and I’m not entirely sure of my reaction to it. On the one hand, I really enjoyed it, but on the other hand, I’m not quite sure what I read and what I should take away from it.
On the plus side, Walton’s writing is, as usual, very evocative. The close focus on the life of Trish/Pat lets readers get intimately acquainted with her and her inner life. Bear in mind that the author is portraying two completely different timelines in alternating chapters, so I’m impressed that the main character is so different in each of them and yet so recognizably the same woman.
The other major characters are similarly well-drawn, although this is aided by the fact that each timeline only has one or two people that are closely involved with Trish/Pat through most of her life. In the Trish chapters, this person is her husband Mark, and it segues later into her daughter Helen. In the Pat chapters, Bee is the dominant person and remains so through the lion’s share of the story. There are other characters around them, obviously, but the major relationships dominate the narrative.
Unfortunately, in later chapters the sheer proliferation of characters who pop up and don’t spend much time in the story makes it a little difficult to follow. There were a few times that I had to flip back through the pages to remind myself who had just shown up in the narrative. It kind of feels like the minor characters pop in and out without making much of a ripple in the story, at least as far as the reader is concerned. They do affect Trish/Pat, but the reader doesn’t get as much of a look at that.
My big issue with this book is that I’m not sure what the plot was supposed to be. In fact, I’m not sure there was one, and this may simply be a portrait of two different lives separated by a single decision. The implication that we seem meant to take from it is that everybody’s life is important and affects the world around them (mentions of the butterfly effect seem to support this), but there’s never any indication of how this would be, or of why. I don’t need all of the answers spelled out for me, but the complete lack of detail on this subject bothered me. And then there’s always the persistent question: is all of this just a product of Patricia’s dementia? You’re not going to get any answers. On some level, you don’t need them—at least as far as this question goes, the fact that either timeline is “real” for Patricia is enough. But there’s no plot to support a reason for the world that she lives in to be so different based on a single choice.
Jo Walton had an interesting idea when she wrote My Real Children, but I’m not convinced that she handled it as well as she could have. I will say that, taken simply as a chronicle of two very different lives, this book is a rewarding read. If you are in the mood for an exploration of how a choice may affect a single life, this is the book for you.