Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells


It took me several days to read through
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer. Partially because I was reading slower, partially because I was savoring it. Now this is a book with some surprising time travel, so allow me to set the stage:

The book starts out with our first and our real Greta Wells living in 1985. In 1985, Greta's beloved twin brother Felix dies of complications from AIDS. Greta is devastated. This major loss is then complicated by the break up with her long-time partner Nathan. Greta Wells becomes severely depressed and chooses a fairly radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her debilitating depression. The treatment, though, has unexpected and bizarre effects when Greta finds herself whisked to previous lives she might have had if she'd been born in a different era. It might be enough to know that those Gretas are also submitting to some form of ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, shock treatments, in those lives as well...

During the months of her treatment Greta cycles between her own time in 1985, another alternate life in 1918, where she is having an affair with Nathan and where her brother Felix is alive and well, though struggling with his identity, and a life in 1941 where Greta is married to Nathan and mother to their son. Separated by odd time and interesting changes in social mores, Greta's three lives populated with the same people, albeit achingly different relationships. In each time period Greta finds herself longing for those people she has lost in 1985, though the prices of those realities might be too high to bear.

Who hasn't wondered the what ifs of life? What if I hadn't lost that person in my life? What if that relationship had continued? What if I had the power to know the future? How does my life affect those around me? Can I be happier with other choices? What would I give up to have back those whom I have lost? What could life be like if I had what I thought I wanted?

Have you ever wondered what life was like generations ago? Greta gets to walk through her own apartment, on her own street, through her beloved neighborhood in New York City in three different eras. Enjoying the prosaic events from one life: walking down the street, dressing, preparing a meal, hearing the news, responding to community events. Moving with Greta through 1917 and 1941 was a delight because Andrew Sean Greer so obviously delighted in his research. He so obviously enjoyed creating Greta's home and neighborhood of the past and for that I thank him. What a surprising thing to say, hey? But the flotsam of one life can be simply magical when seen through the eyes of someone from another time.

I didn't expect this book and I think I can highly recommend it...

And now for my favorite part of any review:  I have two favorite excerpts from The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, though Greer's writing is quite lovely to read I could have included dozens of pieces. See if you don't love these pieces as much as I do:

 Our heart is so elastic that it can contract to a pinpoint, allowing our hours of work and tedium, but expand almost infinitely - filling us like a balloon - for the single hour we wait for a lover to awaken.


It's easy to say something is all in your head. It's like saying sunset is all in your eyes.

 One last thought about a secondary character, Greta's Aunt Ruth. This character provides another complex relationship for Greta to transit, yet Aunt Ruth's presence is a wonderful touchstone for the reader. In each of her lives, Aunt Ruth is Greta's beloved yardstick of reality. Aunt Ruth offers Greta both continuity and comparison. Her flaky, consistent, even bohemian lifestyle couches Greta in each life and helps her to process many of life's lessons...for the most part. I had a wonderful seasoned actress in mind any time Aunt Ruth appeared on the page and she made me smile, often.

So enjoy the luscious prose.
I give this surprising read a nice rating of six stars.

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