My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014) 254 p.
Patricia is almost ninety years old, living in a nursing home, and her memory is failing as Alzheimer’s takes hold of her mind. More alarming than her memory loss is the fact that she seems to recall two completely different lives: one in which she married young and had four children, and another in which she never married but nonetheless had three children. She remembers President Kennedy being assassinated, but she also remembers him declining to run for president again after a limited nuclear war. She knows there is a permanent base on the moon – but is it for scientific research, or is it bristling with nuclear missiles?
My Real Children takes us through Patricia’s childhood and early adulthood, up to the splitting point where her two separate lives begin: the moment she either accepted a marriage proposal from a failed and penniless scholar named Mark, or the one where she rejected him.
In her life as “Tricia,” where she marries Mark, things quickly turn ugly. The warmth of their courtship is replaced by an emotionally abusive monster who more or less imprisons her in the kitchen and makes her bear him four children even after repeated stillbirths and miscarriages. This segment is a little forced, but no less horrifying for it – a grim reminder of how few rights women had as recently as the 1950s.
In her life as “Pat,” where she rejects Mark, she travels to Italy, teaches at Cambridge, writes a series of successful travel guides and eventually enters a loving and stable lesbian relationship with a woman named Bee, having children together through the use of a friend and sperm donor. This life, again, sometimes feels too warm and sugary sweet at first, but achieves poignancy because of its ongoing parallel in alternate chapters. There was no doubt in my mind that, could a twentysomething Pat peer into the life of a twentysomething Tricia, she’d be ashamed of herself. And when Pat eventually bumps into Mark again in her own lifetime, purely by coincidence, it could be no less terrifying than if a tiger had entered the room. Nothing comes of this brief encounter – he has no power over her in this timeline, of course – but the reader knows full well the torments he so easily could have inflicted on her. “We would have found each other no matter what,” Bee tells Pat at one point while they’re discussing their sexuality, which is terribly sad because of course it isn’t true.
Meanwhile, the world itself is diverging. Although Tricia is miserable, her world is one of nuclear disarmament, women’s liberation, gay rights and technological advancement. Meanwhile, Pat is happy, but lives in a world plagued by terrorist bombings, limited nuclear exchanges and creeping fascism. Nothing Patricia ever does in either life is more significant than marching in peace campaigns or running for city council, but My Real Children operates on the butterfly effect. In her nursing home, trying to come to terms with her divergent memories, she thinks to herself:
She hadn’t been important, in either world, she hadn’t been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds.
But what if she had been?
What if everyone was?
I’ve seen other reviewers complain that the idea of divergent lives never amounts to much; Gwyneth Jones concludes at the Guardian that “it seems that the state of the world doesn’t really matter to women – having children makes up for everything.” I have to disagree, at least with the implicit complaint that the book is somehow anti-feminist, which is the last thing I’d accuse it of being – it’s been a long time since I read something which reminded me how cruelly unfair the world was to woman until so recently, and how hard-won the battles of the 1960s and ‘70s were. My Real Children posits that while we make choices which radically change our lives – sometimes very bad choices, which result in a lot of misery – all our lives are nonetheless rich tapestries, and in all of them we can find some purpose and fulfilment and love.
I liked My Real Children a lot more than I really should have, on the whole. A lot of it is summary rather than scene, a lot of it can be a bit forced or on the nose, it loses steam towards the end as both of Patricia’s lives begin to wind down in a fog of dementia, and it gets a little hard to keep track of all the grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. I nonetheless found it a very readable, compelling and thoughtful book – missing some certain spark which would have made it great, but still well worth reading.