In brief: Patricia is a very old lady with dementia in a nursing home. Despite this, she can remember two versions of her life. Which one is true?
The good: A beautiful, emotional story that is also a page-turner.
The not-so-good: It gets very sad in places!
Pages: 320 (ARC)
Publisher: Corsair/Allen & Unwin
Setting: Predominantly England and Florence, Italy
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
My Real Children looks like an innocent book, but boy does it pack a punch between its pages! If you enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, you’re in for a treat. This book explores two different lives lived by Patricia – but which of them is real? It also becomes more interesting by having different versions of world events and their effects. I could not put this book down (and should not have, as I ended up at a party dressed completely inappropriately a la Bridget Jones. Perhaps in my alternate life, it didn’t happen and I pulled an all-nighter on My Real Children). It was refreshing and engaging, plus I’ve discovered a new favourite author who knows just when to pull the heartstrings.
The book begins at the end of Patricia’s life in 2015. She knows she’s in a nursing home and she knows she has dementia. She’s either confused or very confused according to her carers. Patricia remembers a lot of odd things, it’s almost like she lived two different lives. The book then splits into alternate chapters of Patricia’s two lives, which are the same until she has to make a decision whether to marry Mark after university. In one life, she says yes. In that life, she’s Trish and it’s very hard going. I lost track of how many miscarriages and stillborn babies she suffered. Mark is cruel. Yet, she has four wonderful children who go on to do some great things. In the other life, Patricia says no to Mark’s proposal. In that life, she spreads her wings and falls in love with Florence, Italy. She also falls in love with Bee and they go on to have three children. Their lives are not easy, but they’re happy. But this time, it’s the world that’s cruel…
Each chapter is left at just enough of a cliff-hanger to make you want to go on and read the next chapter, and the next. Patricia’s two lives are incredibly different and the changes in feelings and moods between them are palpable. The pain and sorrow she experiences brought a tear to my eye, as did her descent into dementia (try as she might, Pat cannot forget that her loved one is dying – her realisation of this is beautifully written). I also really enjoyed the twists to history that Jo Walton has made. They are subtle and will have you scratching your head thinking, ‘but I thought such and such a crisis ended this way…’ and double checking on Wikipedia. The ‘what might have been’ for the Cuban Missile Crisis amongst others was fascinating and I loved how those choices were carried through Pat’s life. Another big tick from me was that the medical problems were factually correct. (Not that there were many of them, but it’s clear that they were well researched).
I think one of the best things about My Real Children is the emotion is draws out from the reader. You can’t help but react to Tricia/Pat’s sorrow and rejoice with them during happier times. It’s a long time since a book sent me on a rollercoaster of emotions, but My Real Children did it. Don’t be put off though; it’s a rewarding read that will stay with you beyond the end pages.