My Real Children, by Jo Walton

“Now or Never?”

If you care for a book recommendation, may I suggest “My Real Children” by Jo Walton?
In particular this one might be of interest to Mass Effect and Dragon Age fans – I say that on account of its key theme of choices with wide moral and social implications.

More thoughts under the cut.

Quick Synopsis

Patricia Cowan is in an old peoples’ home, nearing the end of her busy life. It’s 2015 and the home has a stair lift. Except it’s also 2014 and the home only has an elevator. The home is also up on the moor – except that it’s down by the river. Patricia’s partner was Bee, except on the days when instead she was married to Mark. She remembers the day a bomb blew up President Kennedy, and she also remembers the day when he announced he wouldn’t run for a second term after the nuking of Kiev and Miami.
Contrary to what the staff at both versions of the home believe, Patricia isn’t senile; rather, she’s remembering two different versions of her own life.

In 1949, Patricia had to make a choice. Mark proposed to her – “Now or Never?” In the life where she said “Now”, she became Tricia and then later on, Trish. In the life where she said “Never”, she became Pat.

Tricia survived an unhappy and frankly borderline-abusive marriage to Mark; Pat instead met Beatrice and also fell in love with the city of Florence.

Their lives diverged.

What I liked

This is a fascinating book. I could write pages and pages about it. I’ll try and be brief instead.

First of all, it’s remarkable how Trish and Pat feel like two completely different people, despite being biologically the same person. It’s also interesting to see how their lives change and develop. To some extent they’re the inverse of each other. Pat’s is much happier initially, however I felt that her later years were more problematic than Trish’s. Tricia initially feels very much like a pure victim, but as she gets older, there’s a definite sense that the locus of power drifts back toward her and away from Mark. This is made very clear after she divorces Mark and later on ends up on the city council, where she makes a very real difference to her world. On the other hand Pat has to deal with the consequences of Bee getting caught up in a train bombing, and then they both suffer with the ongoing side-effects of the Kiev event.

The worlds they’re in also change. Interestingly, neither of those are ours. At first Pat’s seems to be off to a better start – Britain is a founder member of the EEC, signing the Treaty of Rome, and the Tory Party’s adoption of xenophobia apparently never happens. However, it starts going off the rails – neoliberalism turns up a decade early, there are lots of nuclear weapons states, the Cold War is getting hotter and sporadic nuclear exchanges start happening. Also changes in attitudes to sexuality appear to have stalled – Bee and Pat’s relationship isn’t illegal, but they do have a lot of trouble from the State in the form of a nosy social worker.

By contrast, Trish’s world ends up with disarmament, social democracy as the default political position, no nuclear exchanges and (in Britain at least), same-sex marriage arrives in the mid-80s. By the 1990s, there’s also serious talk about terraforming Mars(!).

What I Found Problematic

Whilst hardly a narrative problem, this is a very emotional book. I won’t spoil any of them for you, but there are many moments when I actually found myself sniffling. (This included while I was reading this in the canteen at lunch.) Jo Walton doesn’t spare the characters the pain that would come with real lives.

Also, regarding Tricia’s early married life – this could be a difficult read for some people. The marital situation is depicted in a granular and vivid manner – unfortunately, it’s not a happy one. Mark is not a good husband, to put it mildly. If you’ve had a problematic domestic or family situation, this could be a discomfiting read.

Lastly, the ending to the whole novel is ambiguous. I have my own theory about what precisely happened, and what it implied, but that theory would be spoilerific in the extreme. (I’ll drop a small hint: I think it’s significant that neither Trish nor Pat’s worlds are ours, and I think this had some bearing on her choice.) Also it’s never really clarified just how exactly Pat/Trish were able to be bifurcated in this manner.

Summary

Read this book 🙂 Seriously, you won’t regret it!

Well, okay, if you don’t like books that make you take women’s lives and views seriously, and which will make you feel for the characters, then you’ll hate this one. But if you’re someone like that, then frankly, I pity you, and you have other problems.

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