Which were her real children? Poor Doug and dear Helen and brilliant George and troubled Cathy? Or sensible Flora and wonderful Jinny and talented Philip? Was Sammy or Rhodri her favorite grandchild? Only one set of them could possibly be real, but which? She loved them all, and there was no real difference in the quality of her love for them.
Is there a name for the genre of novel that tells one person’s story from birth to death? Bildungsroman isn’t right, as the point in this case is not development towards a place in the world but rather passing through the world, through the ages of life, from start to finish. Any Human Heart would be an example, and so would A God in Ruins (tricks aside), or Moon Tiger. I suppose ‘biographical novel’ would do, but that sounds dull so I’m going to call them “soup to nuts” novels and then claim My Real Children for the list — though Walton’s trick here is to double it up, giving us not one but two stories of the same person’s life. In a way it’s Life After Life Lite, and it’s hard not to wonder if Walton was influenced in any way by Atkinson’s success. Perhaps she was just annoyed by it, as My Real Children did not, as far as I can tell, get anything like the attention, but then, both the premise and the execution of Walton’s novel are less showy than Atkinson’s.
My Real Children might also be called a “fork in the road” novel: its deceptively simple premise is that its protagonist, Patricia, is confronted with a dramatic “now or never” choice, a proposal, and her decision shapes everything about her subsequent life. But the novel opens with the elderly Patricia “very confused” in her nursing home, unable to remember which life — the “yes” life or the “no” life — she actually lived, and the rest of the book takes us in alternating chapters through both possibilities. That in itself gives Walton plenty of interesting things to do, not the least of which is working out how Patricia’s character is itself affected by the events of her life, either as “Tricia,” who marries Mark, or as “Pat,” who does not. What is fundamental to someone’s identity and what is susceptible to experience? How does someone’s individual personality express itself under different circumstances? How, to look at it from our point of view, can we see double and yet accept the Patricia of the novel’s opening and closing as the same woman we’ve followed along two such different paths? Walton does this with both ingenuity and some subtlety, I thought: arriving back at the nursing home, there’s no awkwardness, no dislocation, as the histories merge.
Both stories are also persistently interesting, though there’s not much artful about Walton’s narration: it’s one-thing-after-another storytelling, without flourishes (the governing premise aside, obviously). Both lives have their share of joy and sorrow, but the highs and lows are related with the same flat affect throughout, so that (for me, anyway) scenes that might have been moving or uplifting were not, or not very. Since the novel sounded the same all the time, I also sometimes forgot which story I was in at the moment and had to ferret around for the last time Patricia was named — and sometimes, even then, to consciously remind myself what that name meant about which story I was following. The sense of a life (or lives) unfolding, though, has its own momentum and, eventually, inevitably, its own poignancy.
There is one other dimension to My Real Children: in both cases, the backdrop to Patricia’s (or Tricia’s or Pat’s) life is not quite 20th-century history as it actually played out but an alternative version — one in which, for instance, John F. Kennedy is killed by a bomb, or the stand-off over Cuba leads to nuclear bombs falling on Miami and Kiev. I didn’t try very hard to keep track of how these variations played out in each case, but at the end of the novel Patricia helpfully sums them up:
Trish’s world was so much better than Pat’s. Trish’s world was peaceful. Eastern and Western Europe had open frontiers. There had been no nuclear bombs dropped after Hiroshima, no clusters of thyroid cancer. There had been very little terrorism. The world had become quietly socialist, quietly less racist, less homophobic. In Pat’s world it had all gone the other way.
Are these world-historical differences in any way the result of her choices, as her different personal lives are the consequences of her answer to Mark’s marriage proposal? Why is the “better” world the one in which she accepts that early proposal? Is there any necessary connection, she wonders, between her own loss (it’s a terrible marriage) and the world’s gain? She alludes to the “butterfly effect“: I didn’t notice any hints along the way that we were supposed to make causal connections of that sort, but that might be because I was focusing primarily on the personal elements of the story. This section at the end made me think I might have underestimated the novel I was reading. I found the alternative history aspect mostly just a distraction: I couldn’t see (still can’t really see) why the novel couldn’t have played out its two possible versions of events right here in the real world. Dorian pointed out on Twitter that it wouldn’t really make sense to do that — that’s the unbearable lightness of being, after all. And yet there’s nothing stopping a novelist from playing with possibility in that way, and Walton could have left it open-ended which version, if either, was the “truth” of Patricia’s life.
As it is, though, we’re left with a metaphysical puzzle and also a moral puzzle, both without an answer:
She had made a choice already, one choice that counted among the myriad choices of her life. She had made it not knowing where it led. Could she make* it again, knowing?
The only constant, it turns out, is love: “Whichever way she chose she’d break her heart to lose her children. All of them were her real children.” I liked that, and I was also touched by the evocation of old age that frames the novel, and by the idea of confusion that just might, in its own way, be knowledge.
*My edition actually says “Could she made it again, knowing?” So did the hardcover edition I could ‘look inside’ on Amazon. It’s a mistake, I’m sure, so I’ve made what I think is the proper correction.