What a lovely read this is: Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014) is a smooth, beautifully written alternate worlds novel that uses a familiar science fictional trope to muse thought-provokingly on choice, love, fate, and the human condition. It’s the story of Patricia Cowan, a woman born in England shortly before World War II. Her early years unfold rather conventionally against the tragic geopolitical backdrop of mid-century Europe, leading up to a momentous marriage proposal from a suitor named Mark. The proposal comes as a now-or-never ultimatum, and Patricia…both accepts and rejects it. Here the novel splits off into two alternating narratives: one tracking the life of Tricia, who dutifully marries Mark and raises his children, and the other following Pat, who follows an entirely different path and starts a very different family. These two lives are drastically contrasting, and so are the sociopolitical realities of their worlds, but both Pat and Tricia experience their own unique joys, successes, struggles, and tragedies.
A mesmerizing blend of history, gender politics, personal drama, and what-if speculation, My Real Children is a quiet, thought-provoking book that hauntingly investigates one woman’s life decisions. Walton’s prose is simple but confident; at times, it feels weirdly like reading a montage, with plenty of summary, and yet I was swept along, intrigued by the discrepancies between the two lives and the two worlds. The variances between realities also provide interesting, varied angles on the author’s sociopolitical viewpoint, which is quite feminist and progressive. At times I found the commentary unsubtle, but it’s also fascinating how it is framed against two alternate versions of our past, so that even as the conditions are familiar, they’re also slightly alien. A framing device cleverly ties it all together, in a manner both heartening and deeply sad. Overall, a very satisfying novel, one of those books that practically reads itself.