“VC” abbreviates very confused, making Patricia smile—”as if she was sufficiently confused to be given a medal for it.” Patricia is old and confused in 2015. She lives in an assisted-living facility that some days has an elevator, some days only stairs. The changes are subtle, inexplicable, a softened boundary allowing two worlds to bleed together. Is she Trish, the ex-wife of Mark and mother of Doug, Cathy, Helen, and George? Is she Pat, Bee’s lover and mum of Florence (Flora), Jennifer (Jinny), and Phillip? Does she raise children and return to teaching, or write famous guidebooks for Italy and have her children late in life? Does the cancer resulting from the H-bomb decimate the human population, or does she live in a world of relative peace? These questions plague Patricia, along with her missing glasses, her misplaced hearing aid, and discomfiture of knowing she slips daily into the dementia that destroyed her own mother.
One woman, two possible lives hinging on one phone call placed in 1949: Now or never, Mark’s voice crackles across the distance in her ear.
Now, she says and steps into her life as Tricia—a woman ridiculed by her husband, made to feel like a baby factory, a housemaid, incompetent as a child and twice as annoying.
Never she says, and steps into her life as Pat—loved, writer of successful guidebooks to Italy, an independent woman who fashions her own mold of femininity.
One life, or two lives? Walton creates believable alternate world histories. Did President and Mrs. Kennedy die in the bombing of a Dallas banquet hall, or did Kennedy run for a second term and bomb Kiev during the infamous “Cuban Exchange” with Russia? Does Patricia lose a son to HIV, or the father of her children to cancer? Does her ex husband suffer a stroke, or does her partner suffer a terrible physical loss due to bombings? Does America colonize the moon or Mars? Does life come down to bedpans, love and Florence? Patricia’s lives animate the second half of the 20th century: WWII, Korea, the Cold War, the Space Race, and the steady, continued rise of feminism.
This is a story of human rights, of love and loss and the intricacies of reality. Walton never explains the two realities, nor picks one. Any selection would feel trite, and by not offering an explanation Walton avoids bogging down a beautiful story with unnecessary details.
Which is real to Patricia? She remember her children, both sets. She loves them all, worries and hopes for them all. She remembers a peaceful world: “quietly socialist, quietly less racist, less homophobic.” She also knows a world that moves the other direction, towards violence and war and terrorism. Patricia does not believe her life choices could change worlds, but what if, she wonders. What if by marrying Mark she tips the scales towards peace: “Perhaps the price of the happiness of the world was her own happiness?”
This is a provocative read, an interesting examination of history, reality, parallel worlds, and international politics. This is a completely different book from both “The Just City,” and “Among Others,” and demonstrates once again how well Walton walks the line between fiction, science-fiction, fantasy and reality.