An ambitious and nuanced story that left Cory Doctorow in tears, the new novel from award-winner Jo Walton is about an elderly woman who remembers two lives.

Jo Walton's My Real Children literally kept me up all night, weeping uncontrollably with the most astounding mixture of joy and sorrow I have ever felt, but not able to stop until I'd finished it. I'm writing this the next morning, and I find myself keeping the book at arm's length, lest it trigger another round of tears.

It's the story of Patricia Cowan, a British woman who, in 2015, is in an old folks' home where she is "very confused," her dementia having consumed her past life. Or lives. Because Patricia can remember two lives, forking at the moment where she is courted by a young philosopher she met at Oxford during World War II. In one life, she marries the man, Mark, and finds herself trapped in a loveless, terrible marriage where she is expected to subsume her identity and ambitions to the career of a bullying, second-rate academic. In the other life, she becomes an independent woman, an authority on Renaissance Italy who parlays her expertise into a comfortable life writing travel guides, and who, unexpectedly, falls in love with another woman, a scientist who is her soulmate.

By this point, I was thinking, aha, here we go: we follow the happy life in one thread, the unhappy life in the other, and Walton will show us how the institutionalized sexism of post-War Britain ruined the lives of anyone unlucky enough to be caught in it. But Walton's more ambitious, and nuanced, than that. Both of Cowan's lives are full of soaring happiness, thanks to the love of good people and her own endless capacity to love and care for the people around her — and because of her ability to find independent happiness and meaning, no matter what her circumstances.

And both of her lives are full of the most heart-wrenching sorrow, precisely because she has so much to lose. The people around her — good people, bad people, selfish people, giving people — are imperfect in the way of all of us humans, and their peril and failures (and Cowan's resilience) as well as their nobility left me puffy-eyed and cried out, and uplifted, at the same time.

My Real Children is a story of pure love without an ounce of sentimentality, infinitely wise about the human condition, parenting, and family. It changed the way I think about the very meaning of life. By playing Cowan's two lives against each other, Walton has brilliantly illuminated something raw and true about where happiness comes from, and where it leads.

Walton's last novel, Among Others, was one of the best novels of 2011, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy Awards. If anything, My Real Children surpasses it. I am an enormous fan of Walton's books (her Farthing/Ha'Penny/Half-A-Crown alternate histories are among my favorites), but even by the high standards of her body of work, My Real Children is a standout.

My Real Children

Excerpt: Read the first seven chapters of My Real Children here at Boing Boing.