This week, I read two novels about parallel lives: the newly published Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments, and Jo Walton’s 2014 novel, My Real Children. I was surprised to find myself loving the latter more. Many people compared My Real Children to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, but as I have read neither, I cannot speak to the acuity of those comparisons. Conceptually, I think My Real Children resembles the 1998 comedy-drama film Sliding Doors, where Gwyneth Paltrow both missed and narrowly boarded a train, and her two selves went on to live two separate lives on two different timelines, with people and events connecting the two on spare occasions. My Real Children opens with an old woman living in a home in the twilight of her life, struggling with dementia, and in her addlement (or perhaps clarity), she began to remember living both her divergent lives in separate worlds with different sets of children. And it all started when she decided on/decided against marrying her betrothed, Mark.
There are a fair number of people who find My Real Children dull and lacking in colour, that it did not do its premise justice, and that it failed to supply a satisfactory payoff. Like Patricia in the story, I find myself agreeing with those criticisms—so why the hell did the novel brought me to the verge of tears on multiple occasions? I am used to Walton’s style, whose novels frequently clock in at an economic 300-350 pages. With her work, you often get the sense that she is about a hundred pages short of greatness, but that had never stopped me from feeling changed after reading her books. If there is anything resembling a flaw with Walton’s writing, it is her assured confidence in her readers’ imagination and ability to relate to her stories.
I find it very practical that Walton signposted the chapters from the two divergent timelines using different contractions of Patricia’s name: Tricia/Trish in one, and Pat in the other. One would expect one timeline to be set in “our” timeline (the so-called “prime timeline) which is de rigueur of such stories, but it quickly became apparent to me that both Pat and Trish’s timelines distinguishes themselves wildly from ours. I first noticed it with John F. Kennedy, who in one timeline was not assassinated and in the other, died in a bomb blast (as opposed to being shot in our real history). The choice to render both timelines different from the history we know had the effect of making me lose track of which major alternate history event belonged to which, and in a way, I suppose it does mirror Patricia’s demented recollections of both timelines. And there are some doozies: Florida, Kiev and Delhi are nuclear craters, the Russians beat the Americans to the moon and established a moon base from which they can nuke anyone from orbit, and Mars was colonised. It is only towards the end that I began to see the shape of the sculpture that Walton was sculpting with the two lives, and that shape is a rhyming one. The question that Walton posed to me, by the end, is this: what is more important? Living happy in a crapsack world, or living unfulfilled in a kind world? Perhaps the answer is they are all important; all the memories, all the pains, and all the joy, because how does one choose between one’s children when they are all her Real Children?
There is a workman-like way by which Walton ticks off world events and personal events throughout the book, though I find her method brutal and efficient. I think sometimes, there is nothing more emotionally effective than stating events as they are, and letting you fill in your own thoughts and feelings into them. I think what worked for me was that I managed to invest myself in Patricia’s story, and in doing so care about the people she cares about. I want to know how her children are doing, and I share her pride in their successes and sorrow in their tragedies. I guess this is where the novel lost a lot of readers—because it runs the risk of seeming just two sets of very pedestrian multi-generational family drama, and one began to question why there is even a need for the divergent timelines conceit of the novel (and I was among the questioners). But I kept reading. Mostly because I couldn’t stop. Because what Walton writes is reality and truth. Without spoiling anything, I think the story of Patricia’s lives have the ability to both make us feel that our lives are both meaningful and meaningless, how localised our happiness can be, and yet, how consequential our choices are to the world. It comforts me to know how small yet important I am, and that chances are, I would likely survive long enough to see my place in my own life and and the lives that come after me.
Throughlining both stories is Patricia’s eventual descent into senility and Lethe-tude, and Walton managed to express the fear and helplessness one feels of losing one’s independence and thus, freedom, and how it affects the people closest to us. I found one quote especially affecting:
“Yes,” Cathy said. “She’s sitting in the sun by the window. She was pretending to read, but she had the book upside down. She liked the chicken. But she said the strangest thing. She said she couldn’t remember who I was, but she did remember that she loved me.”
As with other Jo Walton’s work, she continues to obsess with the city of Florence and the Renaissance and persists in writing love letters to both. I have now seen Marsilio Ficino appearing/being mentioned in her Thessaly trilogy, Lent, and My Real Children; and I must say I have been very well trained to expect his name gracing all future works of hers I read. She’s like that one friend we know who just won’t stop talking about their favourite anime, which one can find either endearing or annoying (though I lean to the former). And similar to many of her other works, a theme she circles is womanhood and its place in society, and in My Real Children, we get to see Patricia’s evolution along with the concept of feminism as it went through its second wave. In one of her lives, she even taught Feminist Literature:
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, her old remedy against nerves. “Some people say women have never achieved anything great,” she said, as she opened her eyes. “This class is going to demonstrate that women have achieved great things over and over again, but they’ve been patronized and ignored whenever they have. Women making art isn’t anything new, though there is some wonderful new stuff being done that we’re going to get to in due course. I’m going to ask you to read and think, but I’m not going to ask any background knowledge from you, anything beyond what we’re bringing to this class. I don’t expect you to know it all already. I want us to explore together. And I’m going to begin by reading you a translation of a poem written by Sappho in the Sixth Century before Christ.”
I am not sure if I would recommend this book to anyone because I absolutely do not know if they would like it or not. It’s one of those works that can fall on either side for many readers. I am glad that I did. There are people who recommend this to people who enjoyed Atkinson’s Life after Life (and there are also many who said if you have read Life after Life, you shouldn’t bother). Is this sci-fi or fantasy, or historical fiction? Or even literary fiction? That is one thing about Walton I love: you really don’t know what you are getting.