I read My Real Children a couple of days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it since. Short summary, as I said on Twitter, it is a remarkable book and I think everyone should read it. It’s certainly the strongest book I’ve read in 2014. As to why, here’s a brief review (spoilers for the book ahead…)
It’s 2014 and Patricia Cowan is in a retirement home; her dementia is making it difficult for her to remember certain key events from her own life. She remembers two distinct pasts. In her life as Pat, she was married to Mark and had four children. In that life she worked as an English literature teacher and was involved in the feminist movement as well as activism for nuclear disarmament. In her other life as Tricia, she met and fell in love with Beatrice (Bee), and they had three children together. In this life, she has a successful career as a travel guide writer and splits her time between England and Italy.
Some days she remembers one or the other, but she can’t conclusively know which reality is real and which is not. The point at which her memories forked was contingent on whether she accepted Mark’s marriage proposal. This framing device at the beginning of the story sets up the starting point for Patricia’s recollection of her two lives. Each chapter alternates between one life or the other, with the events of Patricia’s life being foregrounded against the historical events of the day. Not only is Patricia’s life different because of the choice she made with Mark, but the world itself is different in both of Patricia’s past lives in subtle ways from our own –a what if? scenario played out against alternative outcomes of major historical events of the 20th century.
Alternate history is the sole speculative element in what could otherwise be read as a mainstream book. Where the events do show up, they are not forcefully relevant to the plot of the story, which would have been the case if the alternate history took precedence to the development of the characters. The most striking example of this is that in Tricia’s world, the 20th century saw a limited nuclear exchange, something that only ever remained a possibility in our own past. Living under the spectre of nuclear fallout forces the characters to confront their mortality and live meaningfully through uncertain times.
Genre conventions for certain types of fantasy and science fiction give the protagonist a great deal of agency and power to change the world in unexpected ways. The protagonists of My Real Children are not really placed to have a major impact on the course of world events. Pat and her family are trying to get by in a world that carries on around them, but they can’t help but be acted upon by it in turn. It’s interesting to contrast that to Pat’s thought towards the end of the book, where she recalls the butterfly effect, and whether her decision to marry/not to marry Mark had a corresponding impact on world events. A more painful and unanswerable question arises when Patricia wonders whether committing to one memory of her past will collapse the waveform, if the act of remembering is all that holds reality together.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the alternating timelines could have thrown a reader right out of the story, but Walton’s intentionally transparent prose and linear story keeps the reader grounded in both worlds. I had no trouble at all managing Pat and Tricia (the names Patricia is known by in either past), and think this is due to how Walton mirrored their lives. Pat is unhappy in her personal life, but the political climate in her version of history remains fairly quotidian.Tricia’s personal life is comparatively happy, despite a more unsafe, unstable world. Yet, it doesn’t last. Pat finds meaning and relative joy in raising her children and involvement in activism, whereas Tricia finds it in her relationship with Bee, in art, and in Florence. Both women experience personal tragedy and both bring up questions about determinism and free will, religion and atheism. Their lives contrast without ever being contradictory to who Pat is, and how she constructs her identity.
The book invites reflection to this question: are we defined by choices we make in our lives, or is there a self that remains independent of these choices? That in the end, all roads lead to the same destination? The distinction posed by the question as I stated it is overly simple and there are no clean answers, but My Real Children took me on a journey of heartbreak and sorrow, of joy and quiet contemplation, and it made me wonder. The narrator sums it up beautifully with this thought:
“Now or never, Trish or Pat, peace or war, loneliness or love? She wouldn’t have been the person her life had made her if she could have made any other answer.”
A final note: there were two poems referenced in the book I’d never heard of, both of which I enjoyed after reading in full, and I’d encourage you to read them:
1. Sonnet Against Entropy by: John M. Ford
2. To His Coy Mistress by: Andrew Marvell