[Guest Review by Elizabeth Bear] My Real Children – 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 website
Buy the book

Many thanks to Elizabeth Bear for taking time out of her busy schedule to review this for me. What a woman!!

My Real Children, the new novel by Jo Walton, moves from strength to strength.

(Reviewed by Elizabeth Bear)

This is a deceptively simple story, which follows the life of Patricia Cowan–one woman in two different time-streams. In these alternate lives, her history differs drastically. The world’s history differs as well, and neither line of history is our own. In the present day, Patricia’s experiences are told from her point of view. She is affected by a form of dementia, and cannot separate these two lives–which have begun to merge in her memory. The assured tone of the novel in the past-time sections, however, dissuades the reader from the idea that either or both of these realities are merely delusional.

This book should not be as entertaining as it is: it’s often static, mostly narrated rather than dramatized, and the protagonist is often passive–other than the one cascading choice that drives her two alternate lives.

But it’s not just entertaining. It’s captivating. I’m a notoriously difficult, picky reader, and I can’t remember the last time I actually stayed up past my bed time to finish a novel. My Real Children kept me up four hours past my appointed hour of rest, because I kept just-one-more-chaptering myself.

Some of this is because of that assured tone I mentioned. Walton writes the narrated sections after the manner of good nonfiction, so the exposition becomes a pleasure in itself. Large sections of the book read more like a biography than a novel, and that is not in this case a criticism. Some of it is because the protagonist is an engaging woman, and I as a reader cared deeply for her; some of it is just a reflection of Walton’s own skill as a novelist and a nonfiction writer.

The short version here is that I adored it. However, I do think the book suffers slightly from a couple of logical flaws, which are spoilers.

Spoilers. Serious, major, total spoilers:

The book never explains the mechanism by which the narrator’s choice causes the cascading effects that it is eventually revealed to. And it never explains how she comes to the realization or supposition that it does, which provides what should be the emotional resolution and crowning, lady-or-the-tiger, unresolved choice of the novel. Nor does it explain why on earth she thinks she has the power to go back and make that choice differently with her current knowledge. For me, at least, the arbitrariness of all of this robbed that dilemma of its power; it’s a horrible moral crisis and well-constructed in the backstory, but I just couldn’t figure out how Patricia Cowan’s choice was supposed to actually change anything.

But that, quite honestly, is the last couple of paragraphs, and they are more or less my only complaints about the book.

5 Responses

  • Many thanks to Elizabeth Bear for taking time out of her busy schedule to review this for me. What a woman!!


    And now we can add “reviewer” to the constellation of things Bear does well 🙂

    • I think it’s impossible for Elizabeth Bear to do anything bad. The woman is insanely talented.

  • Bear

    Wow, something got garbled in transmittal there. Let me send you another copy with an ungoofed-up first paragraph.

  • Ian Monroe

    **Continued Spoiler Discussion**

    I totally didn’t mind the lack of explanation regarding the mechanism. I thought it was pretty clear that the timeline doublebacks and converges though not why or how.

    Maybe it’s because I had just seen the movie Mr. Nobody which is rather similar in its alternate history setup. However Mr. Nobody does clearly explain what’s going on in the end and was all the worse for it.

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