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My Real Children

July 7, 2014

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?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2014 5:12 pm

    Yikes! This sounds intense.

    • July 8, 2014 9:23 am

      It’s not that intense, but the very ordinary-seeming story builds.

  2. July 7, 2014 9:13 pm

    I’m blanking on the name of a science fiction book (very loosely science fiction) that blended reality and schizophrenic delusion so that at the end of the book I was never quite sure which was actually reality.

    But as for your closing question, music and running both take me out of myself. With music, it’s performing, not so much the listening. And that makes sense because it’s physical as is running so somehow they both pull me elsewhere.

    • July 8, 2014 9:26 am

      That explains some things about you! Perhaps if I were a better musician, performing would take me out of myself. I love being in the middle of it, but it doesn’t help me see anything from anyone else’s point of view or get a bigger perspective on anything.

  3. magpiemusing permalink
    July 8, 2014 3:13 pm

    what a snappy header!

    • July 9, 2014 8:06 am

      Isn’t it? My friend made it for me!

  4. July 8, 2014 3:44 pm

    I loved the low-key remarks about the two different worlds and the ways their histories diverged. One of my favorite bits entirely was when Patricia thought about how her love with Bee didn’t exist in Mark’s world, but would have been legalized there. That was really sad.

    • July 9, 2014 8:11 am

      Yes, that’s exactly the right word: low-key.
      I liked that part too, when Patricia thought about how her marriage could have been legalized in Mark’s world. If things like that had not have been low-key, they could have gotten a bit preachy or didactic.

  5. July 9, 2014 11:40 am

    Oh, this sounds so subtle! I really have to get to reading a Walton novel!


  1. My Actual Youngsters by Jo Walton | JanNews Blog
  2. Review: My Real Children, Jo Walton | Reading the End
  3. Jo Walton’s My Real Children Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

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