Diverging Lives

I can’t imagine there’s a single person who hasn’t at least once thought, “I wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t done X.”

It would seem pretty obvious that my “X” is my marriage to Peter and move to Bern, which happened when I was 33. Those two things have shaped my life dramatically ever since.

Funnily enough, though, this isn’t the decision that occurs to me when I imagine my life having a totally different outcome. That moment happened in Gothenburg, Sweden, when I was 21 years old, and someone at Volvo headquarters offered me a job in the HR department. At that point in my life I spoke fairly good Swedish and knew a lot about car factories (because I’d been working for Saab), so it wasn’t an insane prospect. I’d also been very happy living in Sweden for the previous nine months.

At the same time, however, I was homesick for the US and my family and friends there, and I was, I realize now, afraid of the challenge. So I said no. Had I said yes, I might be living in Gothenburg instead of Bern, with a Swedish rather than a Swiss family. I might even be working for today’s Chinese-owned Volvo Cars, instead of writing mysteries. 

Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which I recently listened to as an audiobook and enjoyed enormously, is about just such a moment. Patricia Cowan, an Englishwoman around the age I was when I turned down the Volvo job, makes a crucial decision: she accepts a marriage proposal from a man she barely knows. At least, in one version of her life she does. In another, she doesn’t.  At that moment in England in 1944, Patricia’s self diverges, and Walton goes on to tell, decade after decade, two tales of her life, one with this man in it and the other without.

The writer’s skill is to show how Patricia remains the same woman, whom we recognize and identify with, even as she becomes two women, Pat and Trish, with different life partners, different jobs, and different children. Another fascinating twist in the tale is that although both Pat and Trish live in post-World War II England, neither of their Englands is the one we know. So the story of the two Patricias becomes political, a set of alternate histories in which both women are forced to face the problems of their different eras as well as the crises in their own lives.

Jo Walton, a Welshwoman who lives in Canada, has written at least twenty books, and many of them have won prestigious awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula for Among Others. I’ve read and liked six of her books; My Real Children is my favorite so far. I wouldn’t label it either fantasy or science fiction; it’s a novel that gripped and moved me and made me think. It includes moments where I’m not quite sure that the message I’m getting from the story is the one the author wants to convey.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend it.

If anyone wants to comment on this post, you might consider sharing a moment in your life that stands out as a dramatic choice for or against something life-changing.

2 thoughts on “Diverging Lives

  1. This is fascinating! I recently came across a mention of My Real Children when I was reading some reviews of the another similar book – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I enjoyed The Midnight Library but it did a lot of spelling out of the moral lessons when you could easily see them for yourself. According to the reviewer, My Real Children is a much more accomplished novel. The best book I’ve read with this concept is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

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  2. Hi Clare. I actually liked this better than Life after Life, which eventually became overdone for me (did she have to put Hitler in, too?!) The Guardian reviewer thought Walton bit off more than she could chew and didn’t resolve a lot of the questions she raised, but I didn’t mind–I just enjoyed thinking about them.

    BTW, I bought The Midnight Library last week, so I’ll be reading it soon and I’ll let you know what I think.

    Hope you’re having a GREAT time in Ireland.

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