Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99).
Who would we be if we had lived other lives? Would we be ourselves or would we be altogether different people? Andrew Sean Greer forces us to ponder these existential matters in his third novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Lives, a deeply moving, atmospheric, and haunting tale.
“The impossible happens once to each of us,” Greer writes in his book’s first sentence. Immediately, the reader knows this is a novel that will distinguish itself from others; Greer succeeds in producing a singular achievement that lingers in the imagination and in the heart.
In 1985, Greta Wells suffers. Her brother, Felix, has died from AIDS, and her lover, Nathan, has left her: “What is it, the missing of people? It kills, and kills, and kills us.” Depression plagues Greer’s main character but the possibility of a cure emerges in the form of electroconvulsive therapy. Miserable and lonely, Greta decides she has nothing to lose.
After her first session, though, Greta experiences a rather curious phenomenon. In bed the night of her treatment, Greta wishes Felix had not died and that Nathan had never left. She closes her eyes and sees “one bright blue star floating there in the darkness, pulsing with light.” She thinks, “any time but this one,” as the light splits and then splits again, “the throbbing blue stars dividing until they formed a circular cluster of light, and there was a kind of thunder.” Her last recollection is falling into the radiance. Her doctor had warned that she might experience confusion, but Greta is ill-prepared for this.
Greer transports Greta into the past to 1941 and 1918, where she is herself yet not herself. In these periods, Greta is sister, lover, wife, and even mother. People around her are the same, but their circumstances are different, much to Greta’s surprise. “A shift in weather, and we are a different person. The split of an atom, and we change.”
In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer effectively accomplishes a stunning feat in historical fiction by evoking qualities of not one but three past eras. From the beginnings of the battle on AIDS in 1985 to a nation on the brink of war in 1941 to a country recovering from the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Greer shows how Greta is powerless as the weight of the future bears heavily on her shoulders yet she cannot change anything. She knows how World War II will take the lives of millions and change men’s and women’s roles forever. Greta is all too aware of how soldiers returning from Europe have survived trenches and mustard gas only to be felled by the Spanish Flu.
Yet Greta can appreciate all the things that others take for granted. She laments the beauties of the past eliminated in the name of progress. Greta is “the only one who” knows “what would be lost.”
One constant remains: in each epoch, Greta is unhappy and pursues the same kind of electroconvulsive treatment she sought in 1985. They will each keep switching lives as long as each Greta prefers a different present. “If other worlds surround us, just a lightning bolt away, then what would stop us from slipping there? If love has left us, well, then there is a world where it has not. If death has come, then there is a world where it has been kept at bay. Surely it exists, the place where all the wrongs are righted…”
In his newest novel, Greer concerns himself with righting imbalance; he wants to set things right in the world, and this motivation appears in his other works as well. “A mistake, made in another world. And here: it could be righted,” he pens in his intriguing narrative. The idea of romantic devotion is the focus of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Greer’s use of time travel allows him to achieve equity where inequity once reigned.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is perfect for fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and the recent bestseller ( and one of my favorite novels) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing. Upon closing the book, I was left with this question: “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?” Indeed, why?