Can the whole really be greater than the sum of its parts? That is the question I find myself returning to again and again when I think about My Real Children. Jo Walton’s latest novel is not without its problems, but its premise is so instantly compelling, its style so sparely elegant, its conclusion so sweetly poignant, that you want to forgive it its flaws.
But maybe that’s appropriate, because the question I began with is, in many ways, a question that the novel itself poses as it asks us to find meaning not so much in one life or another, but in two lives read in juxtaposition. The hook? Those two lives belong to the same person: Patricia Cowan, an elderly patient in a Lancaster nursing home. In one life, she is Trish, struggling to extricate herself from an unhappy marriage and increasingly involved in local politics. In the other, she is Pat, taking yearly trips to Italy with her partner Bee. In both lives, she is a mother, though to different sets of children. And in both lives, her personal triumphs and travails play out against a backdrop of world events that diverge from history as we know it. As Pat, she bears witness to intermittent nuclear attacks and the rise of social conservatism; as Trish, to the gradual victory of international cooperation and the slow expansion of rights for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community.
Walton asks us to believe not that Patricia could have lived either life, but that she lived both simultaneously, and that both are integral to any understanding of who she is. Faced with the prospect of choosing one life over the other, Patricia is paralyzed: “Whichever way she chose she’d break her heart to lose her children. All of them were her real children.” Pat’s life may be more overtly fulfilling, but Walton takes great care to emphasize that each life carries with it its own joys and pains. If Trish never finds the lasting romantic happiness that Pat does, Pat never reaches the kind of understanding with her mother that Trish does—a point Walton deftly underscores through the use of parallel scenes (look for the subtle differences in the response of Pat/Trish’s mother, now suffering from dementia, to being forced to leave her home). And by placing Patricia’s two lives opposite one another—by allowing Patricia herself to remember both—Walton reminds us of how painfully ironic those contingencies can prove; in Trish’s world, Patricia realizes, she could have married Bee, but in Trish’s world, the two women never met.
It is in moments like this—moments that highlight the terrible and exhilarating weight our choices can carry—that My Real Children soars. As Bee says, “I used to think we had time to do anything we wanted, but we can only do some of the things in any one lifetime.” Bee’s tone here is one of calm acceptance; Walton’s own acceptance has an air of bittersweet elegy. One life cannot encompass the full range of possibilities within us—even two would not suffice.
Conversely, My Real Children loses much of its force whenever Walton attempts to iron out its complexities. By and large, the novel’s final chapter is a beautifully moving meditation on chance, agency, and the shaping of individual destiny; Patricia, now nearly ninety, revisits the choice that split her life in two and asks herself whether she could make it again, in all the harshness of hindsight. At times, though, Walton seems to overstate her case, sharply distinguishing between two lives that, however different superficially, are alike in their capacity to inspire both joy and grief. The choice threatens to become a utilitarian one: Pat’s individual happiness, or the welfare of the world at large? And individual happiness threatens to become synonymous with the happily ever after of storybook romance, even though we have seen—in Bee and Pat’s tragically abridged relationship, in the fling a middle-aged Trish has with an American professor, in the relationships (by turns troubled, distant, tender, and all-encompassing) that Pat and Trish forge with their children—that happiness and meaning can also be found in the turbulent and the fleeting.
Admittedly, a similar problem haunts the two storylines themselves. Pat’s life, for all its compromises, feels just a little too idyllic to be credible; Mark, Trish’s husband, verges just slightly on caricature.To a large extent, these tonal extremes are confined to the novel’s early pages. As My Real Children progresses, Walton’s matter-of-fact prose and panoramic approach to storytelling tend to produce a more balanced depiction of each life as a natural succession of highs and lows. Still, neither storyline could quite stand on its own strengths.
But, again, perhaps that’s the point. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in My Real Children, Walton asks us to find both tragedy and beauty in the fact that, in any single life, we must pick and choose which parts are most important to us.