The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
Published by Ecco on June 25th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance, Time Travel
1985. After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the break up with her long-time lover, Nathan, Greta Wells embarks on a radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her suffocating depression. But the treatment has unexpected effects, and Greta finds herself transported to the lives she might have had if she'd been born in a different era.
During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and her alternate lives in 1918, as a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, as a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta's three lives are achingly similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.
As her final treatment looms, questions arise. What will happen once each Greta learns how to stay in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to remain in which life?
Magically atmospheric, achingly romantic, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells beautifully imagines "what if" and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.
‘The impossible happens once to each of us.’
Greta Wells is devastated after losing her twin brother Felix to AIDS and after her long term partner Nathan also leaves her. Burdened by a deep depression that is slowly getting the better of her, she takes the advice of her Aunt Ruth and visists a doctor who recommends electroconvulsive therapy. Ironically, right before her first session she considers, “How I longed to live in any time but this one. It seemed cursed with sorrow and death.”
The night following her first session she goes to sleep in 1985 and arises the next day in 1918. She wakes up as herself just under slightly different circumstances: her brother is alive and she is married to Nathan but is in love with a younger man named Leo. She discovers that her 1918 self is also undergoing electroconvulsive therapy and again, the night following her session she arises the next day in another time; this time in 1941. The cycle continues: 1985, 1918, 1941 and so on for 25 treatments.
“You’re all the same, you’re all Greta. You’re all trying to make things better, whatever that means to you. For you, it’s Felix you want to save. For another, it’s Nathan. For this one, it’s Leo she wants to resurrect. I understand. Don’t we all have someone we’d like to save from the wreckage?”
This is a time travel story, yet it’s not really. It touches on the possibilities of past lives and how your actions resonate to future lives and reincarnations of a sort. Because while 1985 Greta is traveling to her past selves, these individuals she’s ‘taking over’ for are also on the same adventure and they’re all trying to correct past mistakes and secure their own happiness.
“Is there any greater pain to know what could be, and yet be powerless to make it be?”
The heart of the story is of course Greta, her lives, and the individuals she loves in these lives. It’s a tale of romance and how each Greta found (and loved) Nathan but after experiencing each of these lives a wrench gets thrown into the works as she is forced to consider the possibility that he is not her one true love, that she’s been blinded into repetition and is only resorting to what she knows.
While each life could easily showcase the historical detailing of the time, this is glazed over. In 1918, we have the flu epidemic and World War I is ending. In 1941, World War II is beginning. In 1985, we have the AIDS epidemic. While living in these time periods, Greta maintains a certain absence as if she’s truly just a visitor and isn’t quite experiencing the moments around her. For someone who said, “…not all lives are equal, that the time we live in affects the person we are, more than I had ever though” I really wished to see the transformation of her character due to her environment and the impacts her surroundings had on her as a person.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is treated as a serious tale of time travel yet is rife with flaws in its design. A definite suspension of disbelief is required because of how truly ‘Impossible’ the story is. Despite this (and the crazy unraveling that occurred at the end), it all managed to still work. It would be easy to nitpick it to death but in all actuality, time travel is not an exact science and different variations are definitely possible and this was quite an original interpretation of it. The story of Greta Wells is an imaginative tale about past lives and the implausible impossibility of “what if”.