On My Bookshelf: My Real Children

my real childrenWhat if? Many of us look back on our lives and wonder about a pivotal moment. What if we went to that school instead of this one, took this job instead of that one? Turned left instead of right? What if we took door number two instead of one?

Jo Walton explores one such choice for one woman in post-WWII England. At the beginning of the My Dear Children, Patricia is a dementia patient, confused about whether she has four children or three, whether H-bombs took out Miami and Kiev or not, with whom she spent her adult life, a lesbian partner or a husband.

Speaking of that husband, a man proposes to her in her young adult days, “now or never.” On the spot, she says now in one universe, and never in the other. From that divergent point, her life takes two completely different paths. And so does the world in remarkable ways. So this is something of an alternate history novel, but the big events take place on tv and radio news, in the background of what is essentially a double fictional biography.

This is an engrossing and touching book. Chapters alternate between the “now” choice in which the protagonist finds herself in a loveless marriage to a religious, but bitter man with skeletons in his closet, and the “never” choice where she eventually finds love with another woman. In each universe, she has children–way different from each other. And grandchildren. Tracking the characters is fairly easy.

While Patricia’s life in one universe is happy, the world around her is not, very. In the “sad” universe, she writes letters in her spare time, while sitting home abandoned by her husband to perform household and childrearing duties, but somehow, the world pulls back from war. In the “happy,” small nuclear exchanges dot history. She loses the father of her and her partner’s children to a thyroid cancer that can’t be cured.  And eventually her partner. Lots of people are dying of cancer in a world gone mad over the bomb.

This novel got me thinking. Is happiness some kind of zero-sum game? Can a lonely and unfulfilled housewife do small things that make a difference and save tens of millions of lives? That’s the premise Jo Walton gives the reader.

There is a thread of religion in the book, too. In the universe where she marries a Catholic husband who will have affairs, but refuses to divorce, the main character loses her faith. In the one where most people would view her as a confirmed sinner, she maintains it.

One last thought on the multiple universes meme–which is handled in My Dear Children in a very pleasing way, through one person’s choice. Does creation really offer a situation in which all possible choices do happen? If this is true, does it toss aside free will? In other words, if in one universe someone agrees to marriage and in another one does not, both choices have been made. And it seems there is no choice. Only two branches in an impossibly dense thicket of possibilities.

On the science fiction front, this novel is immensely satisfying. One simple premise: two universes diverge at one choice. The author rides this horse through two lives where the same woman ends up at the same institution, buried in dementia, and wondering about her two sets of life experiences. Does the loss of memory blur boundaries between universes? An interesting thought. I wondered if Ms Walton was going to give an explanation through her characters. But she doesn’t. And it was good.

I read this book in two days. I was thinking about it long after I put it down. Get this book and read it: very highly recommended.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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