Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like had I made different decisions at key points in time. There are many books that take that curiousity and use it as a plot device. But how many of them actually posit multiple universes where the same people live in vastly different time periods? A multitude of Kristens living in different historical times. This oddly intriguing idea is the premise in Andrew Sean Greer's newest novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

In 1985, Greta Wells is clinically depressed after the loss of her beloved twin brother, Felix, to AIDS; the imminent loss of Felix's partner, Alan, also to this terrible plague; and the breakup of her long time relationship with partner Nathan. She tries everything she can to overcome the depression but in the face of failure after failure finally agrees to try electroconvulsive therapy or ECT. Her doctor reassures her that there will be no side effects other than a lessening of the depression and a sleepiness.

But after Greta's first procedure, she wakes up to find herself in 1918 rather than 1985. She's still Greta from 1985 though she's inhabiting Greta from 1918's body.  In this universe, she's married to Nathan although he's off fighting the last days of WWI and seeing the ravages of the flu epidemic. This Greta is a lonely one who is flirting with a young actor named Leo in her husband's absence and being encouraged in this by her unconventional aunt Ruth. More importantly to Greta, in this universe, her brother Felix is still alive and engaged to a senator's daughter. 1918 Greta is undergoing psychiatric treatment too and 1985 Greta wakes up following the 1918 treatment to discover that she is now in 1941, also still Greta but in still another version of her life. She is married to Nathan in this version as well, and they have a small son named Felix, after his uncle, again still alive, who is also married with an infant. This Greta is undergoing treatment after a terrible accident that rent her world and left her grief stricken. And so with each electrical shock, these three Gretas cycle through each others' lives.

The narration follows 1985 Greta throughout her cycle through the different time periods giving her more modern perspective on the lives that the other, earlier Gretas are living. As each of the Gretas are suffering, hence the need for psychiatric intervention, rather than waiting and holding on until the treatments take her back to her own time, 1985 Greta is determined to fix what she sees as being wrong in each of the others' lives. Ostensibly the other Gretas are doing the same thing so that there are three women who feel like they know what to change about the other lives they periodically lead. The greatest of these fixes is that 1985 Greta wants to tell her beloved Felix, in both 1918 and 1941, that he should live as himself, a gay man, regardless of the time period, social strictures, and danger of doing so. But she does not only interfere with Felix's life, she also makes decisions that reverberate with profound results through the other Gretas' lives as well.

Greer's vision of multiple concurrent universes is an interesting one. Each of the characters maintains a similar core being in each universe although the ways in which they interact with their society differs and does forge differences in them from one time to another. In essence, they are each many versions of the same person and that makes their choices in each time period fascinating. 1985 Greta is clearly searching for the things that are most important to her as she lives these other lives. Having a more modern character dropped into historical situations allows Greer to not have to focus on anachronistic behavior, because of course she'd act anachronistically. Each era is well written and despite Greta's desire to impose her modern ideas on the people around her in each one, Greer has presented the reality and the social mores of each time quite well. The choice of these particular time periods and the parallels between them are also nicely echoed in the different and yet still recognizable lives of each Greta.

The novel is filled with longing on the part of each of the different Gretas and it is very reflective in nature as 1985 Greta seeks to understand and improve her life as well as her alter egos' lives. But the perspective of the other Gretas, aside from small statements made by her colorful Aunt Ruth to the modern Greta each time she returns to her own time, is completely missing from the novel. It would have been fascinating to see the differences in her character wrought by the time periods in which they lived although that inclusion, would, of course, have made this a very different novel. As 1985 Greta becomes more accustomed to the other historical time periods of her life, her impact on each during her visits becomes more involved and intentional. The cyclical nature of the novel keeps the reader turning pages to see how everything is going to play out but there are moments where the pacing stretches like taffy with the reader ready to move on and the character still reflecting. In general though, this is a considered look at the nature of time, fulfillment, and love seen through a unique and creative lens.

1 comment:

  1. I like the multiple life cycles of Greta. First time I've read of more than one time travel for one person.


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