Review: My Real Children, Jo Walton

Jo Walton has carved out a very nice niche of deniably speculative fiction, in which supernatural elements are so lightly present that you could blink and miss them. Among Others caps off a full book of uncertainty about the reality of magic (by the reader — Mori believes it all along) with a legitimately otherworld fight that puts paid to any doubts you might have had. My Real Children (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) goes even lighter on the magic; when Patricia makes her decision at the end, she might as easily be senile as brave.

Patricia Cowan is very, very old, and she can no longer trust her memory. Or rather, her memories, for she seems to have two sets of them. In one, she marries a cold, intellectual man named Mark and has four children. In another she refuses Mark’s proposal of marriage, falls in love with a woman called Bee, and has three children. In the world she shares with Bee, nations have dropped numerous nuclear bombs, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis; in the one with Mark, the fate of nations remains rather more peaceable. But which is true? (Or are they both?)

Blah blah inevitable comparisons to Life after Life, except that in My Real Children, Patricia doesn’t get multiple outcomes the way Ursula does. She gets one: Senility, and nurses that come to write “Confused” or “Very Confused” on the chart at the end of her bed. And between making one choice — to marry Mark, or not to marry him — and ending her days in an old-folks home, she seems to have lived two separate lives, one mainly happy and one largely sad. Here’s the Mark-marrying life:

That autumn a publisher bought Mark’s book, so clearly it was not Causaubon’s Key to All Mythologies after all. That night Mark visited Tricia’s bedroom after a bath but without any wine. The sexual act seemed to be over faster, which she approved, and he did not apologize afterwards. She did not become pregnant, nor did she the month after, but by February she could not keep food down and she knew she was in for it again.

And the life with Bee:

Pat began researching for the Rome [guide]book immediately after they moved. It took her all of both summers to complete. Going to Rome with Bee did soften her memories of going there brokenhearteed with Marjorie, and by the end she felt she loved Rome almost as much as Venice, though never as much as Florence. “Rome has all these layers, all this history folded over almost stratigraphically,” she said to Bee. “Florence is all of one piece, and that’s what I love about it. It all fits together so perfectly.”

And that’s the whole book: the many many small things that go to build a life. The times of sadness are quiet and lovely, as are the times of joy, in both of the storylines. My Real Children is the story of two lives, two ways a person could turn out, and while one is happier in many ways than the other, Walton doesn’t detract from the importance of the sadder one. Tricia’s four children with Mark are as significant as the three she has with Bee, and their lives — and Tricia’s — matter just as much.

Also reviewed by: Vasilly, Entomology of a Bookworm; Necromancy Never Pays; things mean a lot; and let me know if you reviewed it too, so I can add a link!

  • Love this review. Do you think she chose the life with Mark? 🙁 I still don’t know but it says something that I’m still thinking about this book months after reading it.

    • Gin Jenny

      I…yeah, I do. Don’t you think? I mean what else could you do, really?

  • Jo Walton is on my list of authors I most definitely should read. From Natasha’s comment above, I guess this is ambiguous as well. Putting this one on my list.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, very. If you’re reading Jo Walton for the first time, you can’t go wrong with Among Others; and this one’s quite good too.

  • I like the ambiguous ending because I think when you reach a certain point in life–and I certainly have, in the last year–you start longing for some sense of what your life has meant. And if you’re a woman of my certain age group, you hope that the little things count.

    • Gin Jenny

      I like the ambiguous ending because I have always liked an ambiguous ending. It is catnip for me.

  • Anything that resembles Sliding Doors will catch my attention so this is going to have to go on my list (Among Others has been on there a while). I like that both lives are given time

    • Gin Jenny

      Ahahaha, oh Sliding Doors! I love that movie.

  • Diana McDougall

    Have not read this yet but certainly will….have you read Dad by William Wharton in which a character develops a very complete second life of the mind? Wonderfully written and well worth reading

    • Gin Jenny

      No! I’ve never even heard of it. Thanks for the recommendation — I’ll look into it!

  • This sounds very interesting, a book to get you thinking. I’m not sure I could cope with the two worlds as my mind would want to chose between them (as I wanted to chose between Ursula’s lives in Life After Life.)

    • Gin Jenny

      Well, I think the character in her old age feels she must choose between them, but the book leaves it open-ended.

  • aartichapati

    I definitely want to read this one! I like that Walton doesn’t make out that one life is fated and the other was not (at least, that is what it seems like). I do not really believe in fate or soul mates but in making the most of what you can, and it seems like she embraces this.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, I think that’s definitely true. It’s a book about choosing your path and what the repercussions of that are.

  • I read Among Others and did like it, just felt I didn’t have enough knowledge to fully appreciate the sci-fi recommendations part of it (which was a shame as I thought it might usefully introduce me to the genre). Reading your lovely review reminds me of the best part of that book, though, the simple engagement with a very real life. I do like it when authors have the courage to be quiet and honest in their novels – it can be very powerful in its own way.