A book review of
My Real Children
By Jo Walton
Published by Tor
My Real Children was easily one of my most-anticipated books of the year. I wrote about it a few months ago and even pre-ordered a copy (something I haven’t done in a long time). I’m telling you all of this so that you know my expectations for this book were extremely high. But did it deliver?
Yes and no. Let me say up front that I did like the book, but I didn’t love it. This is because it both was and was not what I expected.
The official summary of this book:
“It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.
Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?
Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.”
If you take this description at face value and assume nothing else, then it completely fits what happened in the book. Somewhere along the way, my excitement led me to believe that this would be much more sci-fi than it was. Maybe it was a review I read that made me think that, or maybe it was the mention of moon bases. In any case, this book is not science fiction. It’s speculative fiction (featuring alternate histories), and boy does it speculate.
In fact, one of the aspects of this novel that work the best is the speculative fiction part. I enjoyed seeing the alternate timelines diverge into very different realities for the two Patricias, not just in her personal life (does she or doesn’t she marry Mark? Hint… it’s both!), but in the world around her. One world is peaceful, and the other poisoned by nuclear fallout. But in the end all of the current events take a backseat to Patricia’s personal woes, and she never seems to interact with the world much more than writing the occasional letter to the odd government.
I thought the idea of two timelines was fascinating, and I would’ve liked to have seen Patricia interact with them a bit more. I also would have enjoyed hearing what elderly Patricia was thinking or doing while in her nursing home. Instead, she’s like end pages. She sets the scene quickly, and then wraps the whole book up in a few pages at the end. She doesn’t have a voice over any of the other pages – does she have an opinion on anything that happened? It doesn’t seem so. I also would have liked to see her interactions with her children while she’s in the nursing home.
I had a serious problem with the pacing of this novel. It moved too fast. The whole book felt like a slideshow of Pat/Trish’s life. First she got married, then she had babies, then this happened, then that happened, then they had that conversation, then this person died, and then blah blah and blah. You get the point. In trying to get through the complete lives of two characters we’re treated to only small glimpses of important moments in their lives. I would have like to have seen certain relationships expanded upon, in particular I wanted to see more of her relationship with her first child with Mark. I thought Doug was interesting, and then he went and moved off to London.
I also wish that the ending had wrapped things up more, or offered more of an explanation as to why Patricia’s life had split in two, but she could still remember both. I felt like Patricia’s mother was the key to this; perhaps this particular form of dementia (as it’s called in the book) is genetic? Will her children also suffer? This book actually reminded me a lot of the film The Butterfly Effect (2004) starring Ashton Kutcher, but unlike The Butterfly Effect, there were a lot of unanswered questions presented by My Real Children.
Perhaps that was the author’s point. Life has a lot of unanswered questions; a lot of what-if moments. We can’t change the world we live in, or the decisions we have made, we just have to live with them. And just like Life, there are a lot of things about this book that I would like to change, but I can’t. That’s not to say it was a bad book. I read it in two days; I cried at the end; I really felt for these characters. But will I reread this book ever? Probably not, though I enjoyed it at the time.
This book is not sci-fi; it’s more speculative historical fiction than anything. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, but you might be left wanting at the end. I would still recommend picking it up and giving it a go, as the premise itself is fascinating, but against my high expectations, this book was ultimately a bit of a letdown.