Meditations on My Real Children by Jo Walton

About the Book

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. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

320 pages (hardcover)
Published on May 20, 2014
Published by Tor
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

I knew I was in trouble when I was less than one chapter in. The thing is, this book is written by Jo-Freaking-Walton. Talent oozes from her pores like a thick perfume. She could bottle and sell the stuff and it wouldn’t impact the amazing quality of her work at all. When her name is mentioned, people anxiously wait to see what is happening.

Her name is powerful, and it’s powerful because she’s one of those writers that you never forget. She’s earned that power, and she’s worked hard to keep it. By damn, she deserves to be center stage.

My Real Children is a powerful book. Part of the reason it hit me so hard, and in such an emotionally raw spot, is because dementia is something that is near and dear to my family. I grew up on the East Coast, and my grandparents were all out west, Seattle and Phoenix, to be exact. Furthermore, I was born when my parents were older, and my parents were both born when their parents were older. The age gap is phenomenal (For example, my great grandparents were born in the 1860’s, and my grandparents were born in 1905 or thereabouts. I was born in the 1980’s).

When I first met my grandparents, they were all in care centers. My only memory of my father’s mother is of a frail, confused woman in the grips of dementia. I think I met her two or three times before she died. The first time she kept showing me her balcony and telling me if I jumped off, I’d die. The second time we took her out to eat and she was wearing someone else’s jewelry and she thought it was her own.

I was so young at the time I wasn’t sure if any of this was terrifying or hilarious. Kids can be cruel, and I was no exception. I didn’t understand, but it has always been a shroud that’s hung over my parents. My father’s sister died with dementia, his brother has it. His aunts all had it. He’s spent a large chunk of his life doing everything he can to keep his brain active to try and stave off the curse that seems to flow through the blood of his family so strongly. So far, so good.

The point is, dementia is something that people struggle with, and it’s been a sort of strong background noise in my family most of my life. I’ve always been interested in it. I studied it in my undergraduate courses. I did projects on it. I’m really into it. So a book with a main character who has issues with being “confused” absolutely hooked me instantly. It tore at my heart, because I’ve seen it, and so, one chapter in, I already knew I was onto something that I’d never forget.

My Real Children is the story of Patricia, and the memory(ies) of her two very different lives, and her children. Patricia is considered confused, but in reality, she’s remembering her lives perfectly, she just isn’t sure which one was “real” and which one wasn’t. They both seem real to her, and that’s the power of it. It reminds me of that Robert Frost poem, “two roads diverge in the wood…” only she didn’t choose one road, she chose both, and you, dear reader, get to learn about both.

This isn’t just some story about some woman, though. Her two lives are vastly different from each other, but the thought that Walton had to put into the rhythm and flow of her book is absolutely staggering. Both of the lives parallel each other in absolutely haunting ways. Both lives are filled with tragedy, loss, and plenty of love and fulfillment. Both lives are so fascinating, and while Patricia is different in each life, her voice is no less compelling for it.

This isn’t just an interesting story. Patricia comes of age during a time of incredible social changes, both for society itself, and for women in general. There are a lot of abuse, sexuality, woman in the workplace, and other important issues that Walton addresses with poise and grace, and turns these issues into absolutely memorable and powerful learning moments for her readers. The thing is, Walton makes the struggles of women in these historical times real. Patricia isn’t just some compelling voice, she’s part of you, and so you will feel her struggles, the realities of the world(s) she lives in, very keenly.

This book will probably be put on the speculative fiction shelves at bookstores, but it could easily fit anywhere. Aside from the fact that Patricia is remembering two separate lives, the speculative fiction notes are incredibly subtle. Some of the world events in each life memory are different. In one life there is a colony on the moon, and a bomb kills JFK, etc. In the other life, things seem pretty typical to how we know they happened. This isn’t in-your-face, and it’s not the least bit jarring, but I do think that handling history in this way was pretty essential so Walton could really set each of Patricia’s lives apart and make them feel absolutely independent of each other while, in some ways, being codependent on each other.

I’m sitting here, at this point, wondering what else I can possibly say about this book and I have no idea. I really don’t have a clue. This book moved me more than any book has moved me in a very long time. It touched a place in me that makes me wonder and dream of possibilities. Patricia wasn’t just a character, but she was me, and she educated me about the power of choice and the importance and power we all contain as individuals, and more importantly, as women. I found this book to be equal parts somber, and celebratory. It was educational. It was a journey and a destination all in one. And Walton somehow managed to take a problem that many of our elderly face, something so absolutely dehumanizing and so incredibly depressing, and make it pure poetry.

I brought this book down to Las Vegas when I visited my parents, and I am leaving it with them because I think they will find comfort in its pages. Dementia happens, and it hurts, but Walton gave it purpose, and she gave those that suffer from it power. Maybe I am reading too far into things, but My Real Children rocked me to my soul. It shows Walton at her absolute best.

I don’t make award predictions often, and I hate doing it because if I’m wrong I’ll feel like a total asshole, but the truth is, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if My Real Children wins awards. This book (and this author) deserves awards. Walton put her soul into this one, and she profoundly touched mine with it. I have a feeling she’ll be impacting my parents as well.

Educational, soft, emotional, and powerful beyond measure; My Real Children isn’t just a book, it’s a force of nature, and it is something that everyone should read.