Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

Posted August 31, 2015 by Maire in Book Reviews / 1 Comment

Book Cover: My Real Children by Jo Walton
My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real Children is the first book out of the five Prix Aurora Awards nominations for Best Novel. I finished it in one day of reading. I did not purchase the book; it was included in the voter’s package for the Auroras.

It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know-what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War-those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history; each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. Jo Walton’s My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

What is the outstanding “trend” in the book? (ie: outer space, aliens, dragons, elves, parallel worlds, etc):
Alternate Universes — Jo Walton shows us the two lives of the same woman after she makes a major decision in her life.

Is there a Message?:
It sure felt like it to me. I’m a little confused as to what it was, though. I don’t want to give away the book, but it felt like one decision punishes the main character personally while the world they live in thrives, and the other decision gives personal happiness at the expense of the main character’s world going to hell in a handbasket.

Any other genres incorporated into the book? Was it done well?:
Although the book was working with Alternate Realities, it really felt more like Women’s Fiction or Literary Fiction to me. It was a good read, don’t get me wrong, but not something I would generally reach for.

Is the “trend” realistic?:
Only halfway? I’ll get into that later.

Was the book easy to get into?:
Actually, yes. It was very engaging, right from the start. A huge part of that is the storytelling. The other, much much smaller part was the file format. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, ePUB reads very, very nicely on my Kobo.

Did you have to do any homework (pre-reading) to really understand the book?:
Nope. If the book is part of a series, I’m not aware of it.

Was the world believeable?:
Not in my eyes, but again, I’ll get into that below.

Were the characters believable?:
Yes, to a certain extent. It felt like there were characters that had been given a lot of development, and a few characters that were almost caricatured.  Again, I’ll get into that…below.

What “problems” did you have with the book?:
Welcome to “below”.
Problems, I have many.

 I have a hard time believing that the choice of whether or not you “marry the guy” would lead to the sweeping world changes seen in each reality in the book. Neither reality is set in our current timeline (there are references to J.F.K. in the book that support this). The world changes would suppose that *everyone* is making alternate decisions along the way, not just the main character. If I could believe that, I could believe that my decision to take piano lessons directly affected the fall of the Berlin Wall. I guess my faith in Chaos Theory just isn’t that strong.

 A character who is so closeted that he lives his life in misery to the point where he closes himself off to almost every single person in his life. He even goes the extra mile to be excessively verbally and mentally abusive. While I’m sure that these folks exist, the world he lives in is increasingly more and more liberal. I find it hard to believe that he couldn’t come to terms with himself and his liberal family in order to attain some glimmer of personal happiness. It’s like the character just exists to be an asshole and a burden on the main character.

 Some secondary characters feel like placeholders so you know what era it is. The kid who knows computers, the guy who dies from AIDS…just felt a little too stereotypical and shoehorned in for my tastes.

 Everyone turns against you when you’re old.  The children that we’ve seen Patricia raise throughout both timelines seem like a bunch of greedy little gits by the end of the book. And when Patricia is shown to have a medical problem, they get offended and treat it like a moral issue that Granny really can’t remember that X Event occurred. I’ve seen some skeevy family politics in my time, but I couldn’t point to a single redeeming member of either family by the end of the book.

 No real resolution at the end of the book. We get to see the two timelines, but the resolution is…vague. Or maybe I’m just not insightful enough to intuit it.

What did you like about the book?:
Practically seamless world building. It helped that there was a lot of exposition every time you jumped between realities, but the world building was cumulative.

I also liked that the author was able to tell two complete life stories in approximately 320 pages. That’s pretty impressive. You get to know both versions of Patricia fairly well, and explore the world from her eyes in two very different ways.

Last thoughts?:
I got to the end and the only thing that crossed my mind was “Huh. I guess that’s that.”

I was vaguely unsatisfied because the story was…well…kind of a memoir. It was a book of quiet reflection on the lives of two identities who were the same person (if you can follow that). There were peaks and valleys, yes, but nothing that I could discern as a solid story structure. It would be different if Patricia had woken up one day in her nursing home and a (singular) friendly person from both pasts was there to help her on her journey to Her One True Self. We could have the standard hero’s journey of hijinks and misadventure, coupled with the fact that our heroine is in her 90’s and has a memory like a sieve.  Instead, Patricia gets old and reflects on the two pasts that she has solid memories of living before the end of her days. Huh.
Maybe it’s just me, and maybe this is why I don’t generally read women’s fiction. :-/

I’m not saying I didn’t like the book. Just that it was far too easy to pick up the next one and start reading. I definitely recommend it, but I don’t think it’s my Aurora pick.

3.5 Stars

TL;DR An Alternate Universe adventure in which Patricia lives two entirely separate lives. It wasn't really up my alley, to be honest. Well written, likeable main character, but I just found something was lacking.

My Real Children by Jo Walton
Published by Tor Books
Genres: Fantasy, Alternate Universe
Pages: 320
Format: eBook
Source: Prix Aurora Award voter's package
Amazon | Kobo

This post contains an affiliate link (to Amazon) you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

I received this book free as a part of the Aurora Awards Voter’s Package. The Aurora Awards are Canada’s national awards for best science fiction and fantasy, as voted on by the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. Nominees, winners, and CSFFA members must all be Canadian.

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