What if. What if. What if. This question drives to much fiction, but we rarely see it overtly addressed. Books like Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life are few and far between, unfortunately for me. Jo Walton’s My Real Children, while not as wildly experimental as Life After Life, gave me another chance to wonder what if along with a character.
When we meet Patricia, she is very confused. She would know this even if her caretakers weren’t writing this phrase over and over again in her patient notes. It’s clear that Patricia is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She can remember her childhood fairly clearly. When she follows the thread of her life further, however, she has memories of two completely different existences. In one life, she is miserable in love, but has a large family and lives in a peaceful world. In the other, she has a lifelong love, but lives in an increasingly violent and radioactive world.
Each chapter in My Real Children alternates between Patricia’s two lives, never revealing which one is “real.” Both lives are entirely plausible, diverging at the moment in which Patricia decided to marry Mark or decided not to. For a good half of the book, I thought Walton was heavy-handed in preferring Patricia’s life with her female lover, Bee, over her life of domestic mystery with Mark. Mark is relentlessly awful and Bee is so charming and that other life is so blissful. It isn’t until near the end of the book that Walton balances the scales a bit by placing Patricia in world in which the great powers frequently lob nuclear missiles at each other.
I pitched this book to my book group, but they passed. It’s kind of a pity because there’s so much to talk about here: sexuality, chaos theory, feminism and women’s liberation, parenting. The first half of the book is clunky, I’ll admit, but when things balance out, My Real Children ends on a particularly thought-provoking note.