My Real Children: Or if Sliding Doors and Atwood had a brainchild

My Real Children - Jo Walton

This book wasn't what I expected, though if you asked me what I *had* expected I'm not sure I'd have been able to pin down precisely what those expectations were. I can say it was simultaneously more sci-fi and far less sci-fi than I expected. More in that the divergent timelines were both set in alternate versions of Earth that I found interesting. Less in that the two timelines remain divided throughout the bulk of the book and are told as two separate tales. This reminded me of the literary equivalent of that old Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors. This is a portrait of a woman's life, doubled.


The interesting thing about this book is how it reads. At its heart this is a character study. It's similar in feel to your standard literary drama with a dash of historical fiction, yet my attention never waned as it tends to with more traditional treatments. The sci-fi elements are there, but they are subtle and take a backseat to character. In this way Walton often reminds me of Atwood, or even Niffenegger to a degree. This is science fiction you can hand to anyone who likes a good story, and they won't be put off by any sci-fi tropes.


As with any story of this nature there is a fair amount of tragedy, but Walton does an excellent job of pulling the focus away from the tragic events themselves and carrying forward with the characters. Life does not end when people die, or get ill, etcetera - life goes on. In fact, life is made up of lots of little moments, both joyous and devastating, and Patricia's life is no exception no matter what timeline you are within. This book also does an excellent job of portraying various types of sexuality, while making those differences seem perfectly unextraordinary, which was a nice change from most books (where often queerness becomes the lone character trait, or central to the plot). It similarly treated issues of disability, ableism, and ageism with equivalent skill. To say nothing of issues of feminism, and what it has meant to be a woman both in the past as well as now.


As the title implies, Patricia's children are a primary focus. There are the children she has as Pat, and those she has as Trish. There are the ones she teaches. The ones she mentors. The ones she adopts. The children in law. The grandchildren. So many that they all begin to blur together in a way I have to believe was intentional on Walton's behalf. Multitudes of children, all of them unique, and all of them precious. All of them real. All of them in her life because of various choices she made along the way.


This is one of those books where if you sat me down and told me the basic framework I'd be disinterested in reading it. There isn't much plot, the book moves slowly, and the stories that are told are subtle. As I read it I often felt sad. And yet, there is a beauty here, a richness. This is a book I'd feel confident about loaning to almost anyone I know. Patricia feels as real to me as her children do to her, and that in and of itself is a sort of magic. If you are a fan of stories where character takes the center stage, or of literature that focuses on complicated and well characterized women, then I highly recommend you try My Real Children.