Read This Book

Read This Book…

Welcome to Read This Book, a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

This week’s pick is a backlist title that made me cry like a baby–My Real Children by Jo Walton.

“It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused.”

This is a strange book with an unconventional structure that opens with our protagonist, Patricia Cowan, as a very old woman. She lives in a nursing home and is often very confused. She has dementia, but she doesn’t simply forget details and events—she remembers two different timelines of her adult life. She remembers becoming a dissatisfied housewife, and having a successful writing career. An unhappy marriage with a man, and a passionate partnership with a woman. Raising four children, and raising three children. Living in a peaceful society of openness and acceptance, and navigating life in a world plagued by war.

Just when the reader is nearly as confused as Patricia, Walton takes readers back to 1933, when the world still resembles the one we know today. In elegant and mesmerizing prose, Walton recounts Patricia’s childhood and early years through the war, leading us up to a telephone box in the school where Patricia works, where her beau demands that she give him an answer to his marriage proposal. It’s in this moment that Patricia’s story, and her timeline split.

I was initially drawn to this book because of its exploration of alternate worlds and histories, but while reading I found myself equally if not more fascinated by Walton’s brilliant characterization of Patricia. In one timeline she is Pat, and the other she is Trish, and even though her lives diverge wildly, she is still, at her core, the same person. She raises two different families that she loves fiercely. She finds a career, friends, and passions, albeit not in the same order. She faces horrible tragedies. Her two lives are profoundly moving and made all the more fascinating because of how they differ from our own world, first in small ways and then in very large shifts.

The temptation to compare Patricia’s two lives is strong, both in the reader and in Patricia herself. In one life, there is world peace but little (and hard-won) personal fulfillment. In another, true love with her soulmate and a satisfying career against the backdrop of violence and unrest that eventually overwhelms her happy life. The details are fascinating to read, and I found myself thinking that this is a great book for someone who is curious about speculative fiction but wary of diving into something that diverges too far from reality.

Ultimately, Walton isn’t asking the reader, or Patricia, to choose which is more real or which life is worthier. In fact, she makes it clear that it’s impossible for Patricia to make such a choice, because “whichever way she chose, it’d break her heart to lose her children. All of them were her real children.” What’s most compelling isn’t the premise, but the story of Patricia building her families and her intense love for them both. This novel is a reminder that the same person can live two very different lives, and have a far-reaching impact on her world. By the end of her life, Patricia passionately believes that “you can do whatever you want to, make yourself whatever you want to be.”

Just remember, your choices have consequences.

Happy reading, book nerds!


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