Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
The impossible happens once to each of us.
From the very first line, author Andrew Sean Greer sets the stage for a magical, impossible, emotional journey as we follow one woman through three different lives in three very different times.
Who among us hasn’t at one time or another sighed, “I was born in the wrong era” or some similar sentiment?
In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, we meet a woman who gets a strange and miraculous chance to experience her life not just in her current world of the mid 1980s, but also in 1918 and 1941. After being treated for severe depression with electro-convulsive therapy, Greta slips into alternative versions of her life, where the familiar and the strange collide. It’s not time travel, but rather a shift in reality, a journey to an alternate universe in which Greta and the people in her life are the same people, but facing very different choices and circumstances.
Greta is a twin, and her brother Felix is the center of her universe. It is Felix’s death in 1985 during the “plague years” of the AIDS epidemic that pushes Greta first into depression and then on her impossible journey into two other versions of herself. In 1985, Greta’s long-term lover Nathan has just left her after she pushed him away during Felix’s illness. In 1918, Greta is a young wife to Nathan, an army doctor away in the trenches of WWI, but she faces her own set of disappointments and fears. And in 1941, with America on the brink of war, Greta and Nathan are married with a child, but Greta has suffered the loss of her beloved aunt Ruth and is beset by worries over Felix’s own unhappiness.
As Greta moves between lives, she leaves a footprint. She becomes convinced that her purpose is to perfect the alternate lives she inhabits — but she’s not the only one. 1918 Greta and 1941 Greta are on this journey as well, so that “our” Greta finds her own world changed by the imprints left by the others as they circle through one another’s lives.
Confused yet? It is a lot to track, and at times (many times) I found myself flipping back to double-check just which version of Greta’s life I was in now, and just where we’d left off that time around.
It’s fascinating to visit New York of 1918 and 1941, to see the roles available to women — housewives, mothers, lovers — and how those changed over time. Equally fascinating, and quite touching as well, is the view into life for a gay man in those times. In 1985, Greta is destroyed by Felix’s loss . She finds him alive and well in 1918 and 1941, but living lives defined by hiding, pretending, and sublimating. Part of Greta’s quest is to help Felix be happy in the worlds left to him; in his “real” life, Felix was an exuberantly joyful man, and although he (like so many others) died too soon, he was able to live his brief life to the fullest, surrounded by friends and loved by a good man. As 1985 Greta meets Felix again and again, she pushes him to find a way to live in his world and at the same time to seek love and truth in whatever way he can.
The writing in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is lyrical and lovely, full of moments of quiet emotion and heart-breaking truths. In Greta’s first visit to 1918, she is literally stopped in her tracks by seeing a familiar young man on the street — a man who in her own world of 1985 was but one of the many young men struck down by AIDS:
Laughing again, turning, looking around at me: familiar young men appearing in this unfamiliar world. Men who had died months or years before from the plague miraculously revived! There, in an army uniform, was the boy who made jewelry from papier-mâché beads; he died in the spring. And that one soldier, the stark blond Swede jumping from the streetcar, once sold magazines; he’d died two years before, one of the first: the cave’s canary. Who know how many more were off to war? Alive, each one, alive and more than alive — shouting, laughing, running down the street!
Of course, in the joy of seeing these young men alive once more, Greta is overlooking the fact that other perils await. There’s a war on, and although armistice is around the corner, some of these bright young men, “miraculously revived”, will not make it through the war. It was interesting to see the parallels drawn by the author between the great calamities each age: In 1918 and 1941, it was world war that took the lives of so many as such a young age; in 1985, it was the AIDS plague that seemed to wipe out a generation, so that by the time Greta attends the most recent in a string of funerals, there’s almost no one left to be mourners, all of the deceased’s friends having been taken already.
I couldn’t stop reading, once I’d started, and I probably made a mistake in gobbling it up quite so fast. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells has an engrossing plot, but in my rush to see what happens next, I didn’t take as much time as I should have to savor the rich characters and the extraordinary use of language. This is not a long book, but it felt jam-packed — with the jumps through time, with vivid period details, with sights and smells that take you immediately into the worlds of 1918, 1941, and 1985 — so that by the time I reached the end, I felt like I’d experienced something much more than 289 pages of a fictional tale.
The simplest way for me to sum up? I was swept away by the magical possibilities of living three versions of a life, and was enchanted by Greta’s journey. Filled with fully-realized characters and given life by a unique premise, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a reading experience to enjoy in the moment, and then to ponder for hours afterward.
Title: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction