OH. MY. GOD. WHY DID NONE OF YOU MAKE ME READ THIS BOOK SOONER???
I’ve previously read two of Jo Walton’s books. The first, Among Others, was a Hugo-nominated, Nebula-winning novel that I enjoyed but didn’t love. The second, Tooth and Claw, was a more straightforward story which was basically “what if Regency England was intelligent dragons” and, as such, was a delightfully clever romp of a book. My Real Children is a slow burn of simmering something else and it blew my mind backwards and forwards across time.
It’s 2015 and Patricia is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. Her mind alternates between two sets of memories. In one timeline, she marries a man named Mark shortly after finishing her schooling after World War II. She has four children with him and a very unhappy marriage, although along the way she discovers her own ambitions and makes a life for herself. In the other timeline, she doesn’t marry Mark; she travels to Italy, writes popular guidebooks, falls in love with another woman, and they end up raising three children together. Tragedy strikes their lives in a few ways, but they get through it, as a family.
Walton’s use of a parallel universe structure isn’t unique. A very long time ago I read The Post-Birthday World, which does a similar thing, albeit in the present rather than traversing past worldlines. Walton’s use of it is quite divergent; after Patricia decides to marry or not marry Mark, her life changes rapidly. I call it a slow burn because it took me a while to understand what Walton was doing with these parallel lines and where they were going.
At first I was firmly on the anti-Mark train. The guy’s a rapist jerk, and “Tricia” endures an awful first few years of marriage. In contrast, her independence as Pat, the way she develops a career and a wider social circle, definitely looks more attractive. Her love with Bea is easy, even when it gets hard later in life. And there’s the rub: pretty soon, Walton drops the other shoe. Tricia’s life turns around as she carves out more agency for herself and develops independence as well, including meaningful relationships with her adult children. Meanwhile, Pat and Bea have their shares of setbacks, from questions around powers of attorney and agency to Bea’s disability and the state of the world around them. Eventually it’s clear that neither of Patricia’s possible lives is superior to the other. It’s not a question of which life is better but an exploration of the myriad ways in which we encounter happiness and unhappiness as we go through life.
This is a slow burn because it’s character-driven, heavy with narration and description of Patricia’s life and lighter on dialogue or action. It is a meditation on life. Either of Patricia’s lives alone would make for a worthy novel, but it’s their juxtaposition that enhances them into a masterpiece of storytelling. I read this over the weekend after a very draining week. I wanted something cathartic, something meditative—and My Real Children was exactly that. Sometimes, when my own life is feeling small or difficult, reading about the difficulties of other people’s lives is just what I need. I guess it’s a form of recharging my empathy and commiserating with these fictional personalities…. Anyway, there’s something about Walton’s writing, the way she tells Patricia’s stories, that really touched my emotions. I found myself laughing and crying at various junctures over the smallest of life events. As the years turned into decades, I found myself getting to know Trish and Pat intimately; I felt connected to them.
As I mentioned above, both timelines have their shares of ups and downs. This is what Walton is really getting at with My Real Children: she’s reminding us that there is no way to live your life without regrets or setback. Even if you can go back and do it again, there’s no way to “win” at life. You can always have happiness, but you can also always have sadness and regret; that’s just the way it is. What really matters are the relationships you develop with the people in your life. Who do you love, and who loves you? To what lengths will you go to care for those around you when they are ailing, infirm, or upset?
This past year has been somewhat tumultuous for me in terms of caring for others. During this time, I’ve become so very grateful for the support I receive from my own friends. Reading about Patricia’s lives made me think about my own friendships and the people in my life who are so important to me. Yes, my life can be difficult sometimes—but here I am, 29 years old, with a house of my own and friends who text and call me daily, a friend who watches Doctor Who with me every Sunday, friends who check up on me and tell me I’m enough. These are the things that make the darker times easier to bear. These are what add to my pile of good things (my favourite moment of Doctor Who ever).
We could spend a good amount of time discussing the extent to which Patricia’s alternative lives are “real.” It’s possible that her two sets of memories are entirely a result of her dementia, of course (kind of like the doubt inherent in Woman on the Edge of Time). Alternatively, Patricia could indeed be remembering two actual parallel lives among many others. Perhaps that’s what dementia is! And, as she observes in the coda, these memories are interesting because there were so many divergences beyond ones probably caused by her decision to marry/not marry Mark. Both worlds are distinct from this one of ours as well.
This book is vanilla enough in its presentation and marketing that it might actually escape the speculative fiction ghetto in some places and attract a wider audience. I think people should give science fiction a try more in general, but if they pick up My Real Children not really knowing what it’s about, I don’t mind that either. This is the first book I’ve read in a while that I think almost everyone might want to read at some point. It’s moving and heartfelt and beautiful. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read all year—one of those books, like some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, that are just so beautiful they hurt.