Jo Walton’s books always seem to come out around 3.5 stars for me: I like them, but not as much as I want to. I keep coming back because she is a good writer, and because, unlike most fantasy authors, she has a talent for telling a story in one book without padding, and for telling a unique story every time. That holds true here, though again my response was lukewarm.
Patricia Cowan is a very old woman with dementia, but her symptoms go beyond the expected: she remembers two distinct lives, two different partners, two sets of children – who both come to visit her in two different nursing homes. This book follows her throughout both of her lives: through her childhood, to the point of divergence in 1949 (when she accepts a proposal of marriage, or doesn’t), and then through alternating chapters in two increasingly different worlds. There are actually two alternate histories here – one a more peaceful and accepting version of 20th century history, the other more violent and ugly. The history plays out in the background, however, in asides while our protagonist goes through her life as either Pat or Trish.
This is a story told largely in summary, as it tries to capture all important events in two different lives in just over 300 pages. In some ways that’s a strength, as Walton captures the scope of two entire lives with relatively few words. The children in particular come vividly to life with just a few deft strokes. The way the two lives unfold in counterpoint is clever and well-done, and for narrative summary, the story manages to be quite compelling. On the other hand, this technique also distances the reader from the characters, a problem particularly evident in both of Patricia’s relationships. Her husband, Mark, is an awful person with no redeeming qualities (the best that can be said of him is that he doesn’t actually hit her). We’re told his conversation on their first meeting is scintillating, but we don’t see that; what we do see is all warning signs and no charm, so it’s hard to imagine why anyone would marry him. (It’s almost as if Walton herself had divorced the guy, and was unwilling to give him any credit whatsoever.) Meanwhile her partner, Bee, is a great person with no bothersome qualities, and it’s hard to say anything about their relationship except that it’s apparently perfect.
And sometimes the summary is rushed to the point of improbable omissions in the characters' lives: for instance, Pat and Bee don't talk about their prior sexual experience (or lack thereof) until several years into their relationship? This seems to happen not because of any reticence on their part, but rather because from the author's standpoint, they've only been together for a chapter.
As for the alternate history, I found it unsatisfying, particularly when the book indicates that the path the world takes depends on Patricia’s decision. If one obscure woman’s choice to marry or not is meant to determine the fate of the world within a few short years, I want to be shown how and why, not just have all explanations waved away with the words “butterfly effect.”
So I am left where I so often am with Jo Walton’s books: the writing is good, the ideas are great, and the story and characters have a lot of potential but would have been more effective with more development. As is, this isn’t bad, but for alternate lives and possibilities I would recommend Atkinson's Life After Life before this – a much longer book, but for me a more memorable and satisfying one.