My Real Children

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2014
ISBN: 0-7653-3265-5
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 317

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Patricia, the one form of her name that she's never used, is what the staff in the nursing home call her. "VC" is the frequent annotation on her daily chart: very confused. She's old, and forgetful, and trying very hard not to be her mother, and she remembers two lives. Not only remembers but lives: the nursing home isn't the same from day to day. They keep misplacing the lift, and the staff keep changing. But the memories are the strongest. She has two lives, two sets of children, all of whom she recognizes. When someone from one life visits, the other feels like a dream, but both of them persist. Two lives that divided at the most significant decision of her life.

My Real Children is one of those books that fits in the broader speculative fiction genre as alternate history, but also has many of the virtues of mimetic fiction. It's the story of one woman's life, told, except for the opening frame, chronologically from start to finish. At the start, it's simple biography, telling Patty's story from childhood, through World War II, until the moment of her fateful decision in 1949. From there the narrative splits, and she lives two lives. And the world splits as well: in one, Kennedy was assassinated by a bomb; in another, the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into something much worse. Much is still unchanged, including the general lives of people Patty knew well in one life and not in another, but the worlds keep diverging from each other and from ours.

The exact nature of the divergence is not, however, a significant part of the book. This is not the type of alternate history that is obsessed with the point of change, or even the implications for the world. Rather, this novel is about one woman, one decision, and two very different paths through life. Different friends, different challenges, different careers... different hopes and dreams, and different children. But always the same person, the same sense of practicality, the same ethics. It's beautifully told, striking just the right balance of showing important moments in detail and passing quickly, but smoothly, over some years. And, as with Among Others, Walton strikes the perfect emotional balance, leaving some reactions understated, letting the reader bring their own reactions to the book, and filling it with small bits of telling, factual detail rather than internal monologues.

This is also one of the most heart-wrenching books I've ever read.

My Real Children is a whole life, and not an easy one, complete with the heartaches and betrayals, the good and bad decisions, care for elderly relatives, dementia, tragedy, and even abuse. And moments of shining joy or profound satisfaction, but made all the more poignant because they're fleeting. The reader knows, in a sense, how the story ends, which casts a shadow over the rest of the book. But, even without that shadow, life can be hard, or cruel, alongside the wonder and joy. And it ends, and the ending is not neat and clean and uplifting, although one can choose how one meets it. This is the story of a life, all of it, and how choices can divide that life, and how they can cast a long shadow over how one later defines oneself.

This book hurts. A lot. Enough that I want to warn you in advance — I was in tears through the last third of the book. But it hurts because it's so very real and deep, not via a blow-by-blow description of daily actions, but by striding unafraid into the deep complications of choice and consequence.

It's also a profoundly feminist book, in a quiet and descriptive way. It shared the Tiptree award for 2015 and fully deserved it. Both of the protagonist's lives are struggles against expectations, around gender, sexuality, and the role of women in society. Those struggles take very different forms, but they share some deep similarities. Walton shows the impact from the bottom up: the effects on specific lives, specific people, specific situations. It's brilliantly done. One can't help but think of The Female Man given the telling of parallel lives, but this is a case study, whereas Russ's novel was a battle cry. It gets under your skin instead of in your face. (Use of subtlety on this topic is easier now, forty years of occasional progress past when Russ wrote her classic.)

This is a much harder book to read than Among Others. It's less forgiving, less reassuring, less willing to provide a happy ending. Lives rarely have clean, happy endings; one has to construct them, by choosing the material to build the ending on. But it's a brilliant, profound book, in that way that stories about people in all their complexity can be. Be cautious about your mood when you read this, particularly if you've had the experience of caring for a dying relative, but it's a book I will remember for a very long time.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-13

Last modified and spun 2015-09-13