My Real Children by Jo Walton – Book Review

I picked up this book based on its intriguing premise of an old woman remembering living two distinct lives. I got a feeling early on that the novel wasn’t going to live up to its promising beginning, and sadly my instincts were proven correct.

Most people never get to find out how different their lives might have been. Not so Pat Cowan, an elderly woman with dementia who lives in a nursing home in 2015, and seems to move between two different realities that confuse her. She is never sure if she had four children and five more stillbirths, or three children born late in her life. Bizarrely, both sets of children visit her, and even the nursing home itself seems to morph around her from day to day. In her moments of clarity, Pat remembers living two very different lives, and she’s able to pinpoint the split to a fateful decision she made as a young woman back in 1948.

I’m a huge sucker for alternate histories, multiverses and more small-scale, personal stories along the lines of Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow (in which her character gets to live two different lives based on whether she made it on the train home or got delayed). The opening chapter sensitively portrays Pat’s struggle to hold on to her memories and dignity while in aged care, and the mystery of her two parallel lives definitely pulls you in.

In a life before the split, Patty goes from a happy little girl in 1933 on a seaside holiday with her family, to losing her father and brother during World War II, to attending Oxford University where opportunities suddenly opened to a generation of bright young women because of the war. There, she meets Mark, a somewhat strange young man who dazzles naive Patty with scintillating conversations and passionate, erudite letters that keep the fire going during their long-distance engagement. One day, she receives a desperate phone call from Mark, who tells her that if Patty still wants to marry him, it must be now or never.

Here Patty’s life splits in two. In one timeline, she says yes, and becomes Tricia, a housewife bullied and belittled by her cold and distant husband. Their sex life is an ordeal for both and comes down to joyless thrusting after a bottle of wine, resulting nevertheless in nine pregnancies and four surviving children. It takes long painful decades for Tricia, now reinvented once again as Trisha, to finally take control of her own life in the wake of feminism and women’s rights movement.

In another life, Patty declines the offer of marriage, and instead travels to Italy where she falls in love with Florence. Pat, as she’s now known, channels her new passion into a successful career as a travel guide writer, and finds a life-long love with a wonderful woman called Bree. A photographer friend agrees to be a surrogate father of Pat and Bree’s children, and the family regularly splits their time between England and a house in Florence.

Essentially, the bulk of the book is a double biography of Pat and Trish, with alternating chapters covering their parallel lives as years and decades whizz past. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to become dissatisfied with this approach. There’s understandably a lot of ground to cover, as each chapter attempts to capture all the important personal events – births, deaths, marriages, professional successes – as well as give some broader sense of the world, the cultural shifts and big international events. Inevitably, it all starts to feel all too hurried, with extremely sketchy characterisations and any chance of proper connection to the characters lost in the rush.

In a nutshell, I felt as if I was reading a non-fiction biography about people whose lives maybe weren’t interesting enough to actually warrant one. It didn’t help that the prose is at times leaden, and the dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural, especially when the characters seem to attempt to summarise their own lives.

The one interesting aspect of the book is the alternate histories of the world. Trish, for all her personal unhappiness, finds herself in a more peaceful version of the 20th century, with gay marriage legalised in the 80s and global terrorism largely gone. Pat’s world is a much darker place, where nuclear strikes take out major cities, terrorist attacks are frequent, and millions of people are exposed to radiation that results in widespread thyroid cancer. In both worlds, scientific advances make moonbase possible; JFK is killed in one timeline but survives the assassination attempt in another. In the last chapter, back in the present day, Walton toys with an interesting (if highly implausible) idea that a decision made by an unremarkable young woman in England somehow determined the fate of the entire world.

To be fair, I wasn’t completely unmoved by the book, especially near the end when both Trish and Pat age, lose loved ones, and begin their long decline into dementia. At that point however it felt like too little too late. While never completely unreadable, what began as an exciting rush ended with a half-hearted limp to the finish line, a shame when I started with such high hopes.

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