Monday, February 3, 2020

My Real Children by Jo Walton

I first read Jo Walton a few years ago when a couple of friends recommended Among Others, a nearly perfect novel combining a coming of age story with a story of fairies that might be real or might be imagined or hallucinated and a fierce love of books, mostly science fiction and fantasy. I picked up a copy of My Real Children and her collection of essays about rereading, What Makes This Book So Great, shortly afterward. The latter was a delight in and of itself and pushed me into finally reading Middlemarch and Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey and put a lot of others on my radar. So, in my quest to plow through books that I already own and haven’t read this year, I naturally wanted to read the only other book I have by Walton. Like Among Others, it was incredibly affecting. It’s been long enough that I don’t want to say for sure if I prefer one or the other, but this was brilliant.

In the first chapter, the main character, Patricia Cowan, is in a retirement home suffering from dementia, and remembers two versions of her life and gets the details of the two confused. In one her name is Trish and she has four children; in the other her name is Pat and she had three. The turning point was when she said yes to a proposal in one timeline and no in the other. The rest of the book is alternating chapters between her experiences in one and the other. Early on, it seems as if the novel is going to present one terrible life and one utopian one as a way to explore what a woman’s options were and are. And I don’t want to give that theme short shrift. It brings home powerfully what a bad marriage could do, and argues that women should be freed from its strictures as the only paradigm for life. But in the background two alternate histories (neither our own) play out, and the world that is good for Trish, is bad for nearly everyone else, and vice versa. This complication brings in themes of uncertainty that undermines the utopianism and culminates in a choice she has to make.

I was very moved by this book. I’m still thinking through the moral implications of the story, but I loved the book. The alternate histories are very subtly done, and both versions of Patricia are fully formed characters. In each world she has a fully realized family as well. This is a beautifully written, well crafted novel that I will almost certainly return to at some point.

I’m wavering between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.

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