Jo Walton’s My Real Children is difficult to classify. Although it can be read as an alternate history (actually two alternative histories—more on that in a moment), the novel really belongs on the shelf beside the work of “literary” writers like Jonathan Franzen or Alice Munro. My Real Children most reminds me of something fellow genre-straddler Margaret Atwood would write. Walton’s character-driven exploration of feminism and politics echoes Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969) or The Robber Bride (1993).
The novel opens in a nursing home, where Patricia struggles with dementia. She suffers from the usual symptoms of confusion, but also an unusual one. Dementia patients have poor short-term memory but typically remember the past quite vividly. Patricia does too, except she seems to have two pasts—one in which she is mother to four children and another in which she is mother to three completely different children. She is confronted with the question raised by the novel’s title—which of these are her real children?
The next chapter takes Patricia back to her childhood, when she was called Patsy (the many potential variations on “Patricia” all enter into the story and are significant). Raised in a religiously-conservative English household, Patsy loses both her father and brother in World War II before going to study at Oxford. There she meets Mark, who makes a rather unusual marriage proposal upon graduation: “you’ll have to marry me now or never!”
This is the pivotal question in Patricia’s life—or, more accurately, her lives. The novel then splits into two parallel narratives. In one, Patricia becomes Tricia and accepts Mark’s proposal. In the other, she becomes Pat and turns him down. The stories of Pat and Tricia are told in alternating chapters.
The now-or-never question does not merely determine Patricia’s fate, but that of the world as well. Both Pat and Tricia inhabit alternate histories that begin to diverge from real history at the point of the pivotal question. In one reality, the Cuban Missile Crisis is only resolved after Miami and Kiev go the way of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the other reality, nations cooperate to colonize the moon. In both cases, domestic politics are either as nasty or as benign as international relations.
These alternate histories do not veer too far from our own. In both worlds, the role of women in society changes in the wake of World War II, which impacts Pat and Tricia as they form families, raise children and pursue careers. Indeed, the Sexual Revolution—from the birth control pill to same-sex marriage—looms large over both storylines. Walton delves particularly deeply into the nature of the family and she presents several alternatives to the nuclear family of Ozzie and Harriet.
One of the lives is happier than the other, though both abound with joys and sorrows, and Walton is not afraid to tug at the heartstrings. My emotional register normally falls somewhere between Mr. Spock and the Terminator, but My Real Children got me to shed a few tears (the only other book to do that was Frank McCourt’s 1996 melancholy memoir, Angela’s Ashes). So if you don’t like to cry in front of strangers, you might not want to read this book on the bus.
Although Pat and Tricia live very different lives in very different worlds, they both end where the book began—in the nursing home. Like Megan Lindholm’s “Neighbors,” My Real Children offers a sympathetic (if fantastic) view of dementia. Indeed, as Walton barrels through two lives filled with two sets of people (who occasionally make cameos in the other narrative), I felt much like Patricia as I struggled to recall characters or whether an event happened to Pat or Tricia.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children both warms and wrenches the heart as it explores feminism and gay rights, as well as war and peace. The lives of Pat and Tricia tell us much about the world in which we live and what it means to be part of a family.