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In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco/HarperCollins) Andrew Sean Greer slyly and movingly takes Thomas Wolfe’s observation that “you can’t go home again” and turns it on its head. The premise of the novel is rather simple. In October 1984, thirty-something New Yorker Greta Wells finds herself in a severe depression following the death of her twin brother from AIDS and her breakup with her longtime lover. When traditional medications fail her, Greta agrees to a series of electroconvulsive treatments, also known as electroshock therapy. “It’s a last resort,” Greta tells her Aunt Ruth. “They tell me it’s a seizure to break a pattern in my mind, but I know what it really is. They think I should be someone else. This Greta isn’t working, obviously.”
Greta agrees to the therapy and the results are, to say the least, unexpected: her treatments place her in one of three years: 1984, 1941 or 1918. Greer handles these time changes matter-of-factly; there’s no attempt to explain the details of how Greta travels. In fact, Greta doesn’t so much return to her past – after all, 1918 and 1941 predate her birth – as she does witness three different versions of herself. There are echoes of Bob Smith’s Remembrance of Things I Forgot in Greta Wells, but unlike Smith’s protagonist, Greta hasn’t forgotten anything from the past because it’s not a past she experienced. There’s nothing to forget. Yet at the same time the past isn’t completely unfamiliar to Greta: she finds herself in New York City with people of her 1984 life. The home she goes back to is both recognizable and foreign.
It’s the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar that allows Greer some of his most poignant observations. Particularly moving is how Greta’s gay twin must lead a less authentic life in the pre-1984 years. Greta thinks she knows Felix (“we were allies in the world, with our own language”) until she sees him in the context of other time periods where he must abide by different and stringent cultural mores. This means, of course, that Felix must deny his homosexuality – or at least deny himself the possibility of living an open life. He gets married; he has homosexual affairs. Felix’s life becomes emotionally impossible in the past, while Greta, given her (and our) understanding of time and sequence, becomes logically impossible. Greta herself explains Felix’s 1918 existence most succinctly when she calls it “a life in which my brother lived, but did not live well.”
The three time periods Greer has chosen work with each other beautifully. They are all eras in which men die too young: in two world wars and from an illness that decimates the gay community in New York City. The “bookend” years (1918, 1984) are marked by epidemics: influenza and AIDS. And while the progress in women’s rights of women from 1918 to 1984 was extraordinary, one can also nod in agreement when Greta asks, “So tell me, gentlemen, tell me a time and place when it was easy to be a woman?”
For the most part, Greer allows his characters, rather than literary style, to carry the novel. Because the tone of Greta Wells is so consistent, Greer’s occasional flourishes (days are “washed away like a castle on the beach”) can feel bumpy and clichéd. And while not all the transitions between time periods are seamless, the sweep of the novel is impressive. Greer refuses to weigh his story down with period minutiae, but rather finds details that feed our imagination like “the sound of a steam whistle, and the clattering of hooves.” He doesn’t so much recreate the three eras as he does quietly evoke them.
The inevitability of loss, often through death and abandonment, is at the core of Greta Wells. But Greer also suggests a different kind of loss in his novel. When Greta hears that Leo Barrow, her lover in 1918, dies of influenza, she thinks, “… he can’t be dead. It’s impossible. I was just about to write him! As if others’ lives lasted only until we were out of their stories.” It’s a fascinating comment coming from a fictional character of three incarnations, each version, in a sense, a fictional version of a fictional character. In the end, is Greta the sum of her stories? Greer doesn’t give us a clear answer. What he does give us, in this story at least, is a wonderfully imagined protagonist: a strong woman who, like the other characters in her life, also allows us a close-up look at vulnerability and fragility. You finish The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells agreeing with her wise Aunt Ruth. “We’re all so breakable,” she tells Greta, “and we never guessed it.”
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
By Andrew Sean Greer
Hardcover, 9780062213785, 389 pp.