My Real Children
Which are the real children, the four Tricia had with her abusive husband Mark or the three Pat raised with her loving wife Bee? It’s not as clear-cut a question as it might seem.
At the beginning of My Real Children, by Jo Walton, Patricia is near the end of her life, living in a nursing home because of her dementia. The introduction makes you think that she’s confused, that she isn’t remembering much of anything. As the novel’s chapters begin to alternate between the life she has when she says yes to Mark’s proposal of marriage and the life she has when she says no, however, the situation gets more confusing.
Although her life with Bee is as happy as her life with Mark is unhappy, the news in the world with Bee starts to get worse. A few parallels between her two lives seem inescapable as Patricia gets older—her mother always has dementia and she always develops heart trouble. The world in which she lives an unhappy personal life, however, drives her to political activism, while the world in which her personal life is happy calls her to write guide books to Italy.
The worlds diverge so gradually I didn’t recognize that some of the Eurocentric history was skewed until it became apparent that some sort of multi-national alliance had dropped a nuclear bomb on Kiev in the world where Pat lives with Bee.
All the right hints are in the introduction—that Patricia taught a student who might be confused with the artist who “painted the picture of the ruins of Miami,” that she “had never cared for science fiction” and that “she remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange.” It’s just that I wasn’t ready to pick up on the hints; it seems such an ordinary story, in the beginning.
Although it seems unlikely to those around her, what Patricia does has an effect on the world, no matter how small and domestic it seems. In hindsight this may be obvious, as it is in the novel, but one of the questions the novel asks is how many of us get anyone who tries to look at our lives from our point of view? The famous, perhaps, but as Patricia herself points out, “you don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will.”
Not paying attention makes us like Mark, who “was also trying to write a book, a treatise on philosophy. He shut himself up in his room after dinner on most nights to work on it. He refused to discuss it with her.” Being too much bound by the culture of our own time period makes us like Patricia’s mother “who made light of everything and kept repeating that all marriages had these problems.” Taking advantage of a mother’s willingness to put her own needs last makes us like Patricia’s daughter, who “decided to take night classes and catch up on her education. This meant Trish cutting back on some of her own evenings to babysit Tamsin, which she did reluctantly.”
During the life in which her loved ones pay more attention to Patricia, she does different kinds of work, and less of the work for peace. She remembers that “she had written more letters as Trish, but surely that couldn’t have achieved anything? She hadn’t been important, in either world, she hadn’t been somebody whose choices could have changed worlds….But what if she had been?”
This novel answers that “what if” question, a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except with a woman, suggesting that we all seem ordinary except when we’re taken out of ourselves, and perhaps our “real” children are the cumulative results of our efforts over what seem to us a series of ordinary days.
What–besides this novel—has the power to take you out of yourself for a quick look around?