Wednesday, September 03, 2014

What we're reading: Speculative fiction

I just finished reading My Real Children, by Jo Walton, on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. I loved the premise--that one choice in your life (in this particular woman's it was whether or not to marry someone on the spur of the moment when he insisted "now or never") could send your life off in such completely different directions as to not be recognizable. In this book, first she makes the choice to marry him, and we see what happens for a while, and then she makes the choice not to marry him, and we see where that leads. The rest of the book details her parallel lives, in which Patricia, nicknamed "Trish," experiences life with Mark and her children while "Pat" lives life on her own for a while and then with Bee and their shared household. The events of the world are different, too--in the life in which she is unhappy, the world itself goes in a better direction, while in the life in which she is happy, the world is a mess.

In its interpersonal details, it reminded me of the movie Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and also of the movie Passion of Mind, starring Demi Moore. In the first, the simple act of catching or missing a train changes all the subsequent choices of a woman's life, while in the second, the main character lives in one world while she is awake, and a completely different world when she is asleep and dreaming, and she can't figure out which one is the "real" one. I love both of those movies, and the aspect of choice and its consequences held me enthralled by this book too.

The things I didn't like, however, were several. The narrative style--this entire book, with a few exceptional moments, was the process of telling, not showing, and I grew impatient with it. Sometimes it told me more than I wanted to know, and sometimes it glossed over incidents about which I wanted to know more. The running narrative was wearing, and after a while it read like, as one reviewer on Goodreads put it, "the world's longest Christmas letter." At some points it stopped feeling like story--but then it would recapture me.

I also should have known, when it began with Trish/Pat in a nursing home with senile dementia, trying to figure out which of the lives she remembers is the one she actually lived, that it would end unsatisfactorily. Many people like open-ended books (and if you do, this one's for you!), but I like things tied up. They don't have to be tied up neatly in a little cliche, but I dislike being told by the author that I have to decide for myself and then being left, stranded.
Still, Walton gets high marks for both the concept and the vision; there were lots of interesting ideas, and the writing was intelligent and literary. So, like I said at the beginning, I don't know exactly how I feel about My Real Children. Perhaps admiration without love would be the proper conclusion.

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