I’m torn between four and five stars for this. I think it would be four stars if you’re expecting a sci-fi/fantasy novel, and five stars if you’re expecting a book club novel. Alas, after AMONG OTHERS and the SMALL CHANGE series, my expectations from Jo Walton are perhaps unreasonably high.
In the same spirit as that awesome movie SLIDING DOORS, Walton tells the alternate stories that occur from the divergent point as Patricia decides whether or not she will marry Mark. In one timeline, she does, and in the other, she doesn’t. Pat grieves, and then recovers, while Trisha marries Mark and deals with the decades of unhappiness that follows that decision.
The story moves very quickly, in some places more like a synopsis of a larger work than a novel. Occasionally it’s refreshing, but at other points, it was like listening to an old woman narrating her biographical details. Years and years are glossed over with the barest detail. Most of the time, Walton brought it back to a speed that made it comfortable again, but on more than one occasion I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed to great benefit.
Technically, this story is science fiction, because it takes place in alternate realities, one in which there’s a moon base, and one in which the Russians and Americans bomb one another. The world events seem to have little relation to Patricia’s choice, even though the narrator wonders about the butterfly effect. As the title suggests, Patricia wonders which are her real children, and which are not, which reality does she live in? The idea that a scatter-brained old woman is scatter-brained because she’s remembering alternate realities is fascinating and wonderful and so cool I wish I would have thought of it myself. But it doesn’t feel like science fiction, it feels like two life stories of fairly ordinary women. I didn’t buy that her decision made any difference. The moon bases and the nuclear attacks were just background noise to the story of Pat and Tricia.
This is a very well done book, by a very good author, and I enjoyed reading it. I believed in and loved the characters, and cried when they grieved. It didn’t enchant me the way AMONG OTHERS did, but it’s still excellent, and people who like heartfelt literary novels will enjoy it. Just don’t go expecting the same level of fantasy and alternate history as her other novels. The alternate history split didn’t feel like it had any deeper meaning to me other than as an amusingly different frame for two stories.