From the first sentence (“The impossible happens once to each of us”), I was completely drawn in, ready to be enchanted, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells delivered. I read it in one great gulp, and it’s already on my “to reread” list; because the time period changes, a slower (or second) read could help keep all the details and different storylines straight.
The book begins with Greta in late October of 1985. Due to her twin brother Felix’s death of AIDS and her longtime lover Nathan’s leaving, she is suffering from depression, and is undergoing a course of electroconvulsive therapy. And then: “That is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.” This “other world” is Greta’s own, but in 1918: she lives in the same apartment New York, her aunt Ruth nearby, her brother Felix still alive.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that there are three different Gretas, cycling through each other’s times and lives: 1918, 1941, and 1985. We follow only the original 1985 Greta, though the other Gretas leave traces of their activities behind, little things changed where they have left their own mark on each other’s lives. (“I was not borrowing these other Gretas; I was becoming them.”) In each time, the same characters appear: Felix, Ruth, and Nathan, as well as Felix’s love interest Alan and Greta’s love interest Leo.
Each of the Gretas is receiving her time period’s equivalent to electroconvulsive therapy, so that the three Gretas rotate times on a schedule (a day in 1918, a week in 1941, etc.). However, when one Greta misses a treatment, the other two switch places (instead of cycling through all three) until she returns. As the original 1985 Greta nears the end of her treatments, she must decide where she will be happiest, and where she is most needed – in the present, or in the past.
Greer’s writing is beautiful but not showy; without it, the story would be spare. When one pauses, there is so much to wonder about and untangle. Greer, however, seems less interested in the details of how a woman from 1985 would fit into a life in 1918 or 1941, and more concerned with the personal relationships in each era, and the different versions of Greta and everyone around her – of how people are shaped by their time. As Greta reflects, “A shift in weather, and we are a different person. The split of an atom, and we change….It takes so little to make us different people.”
Ultimately, Greta comes up with a question that is also her answer: “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?”
Those who enjoy the writing style of Simon Van Booy (Love Begins in Winter, The Illusion of Separateness) and the mind-twisting intricacies of time travel literature will delight in Greta Wells.
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[…] The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer “The impossible happens once to each of us,” the story begins. Greta in 1985 is grieving: her twin brother is dead of AIDS and her lover has left her. But then Greta wakes up in 1918, and then in 1941. In each time, she is herself, in the same apartment, with the same friends and family, but their relationships are different. As Greta cycles through three selves – in 1918, 1941, and 1985 – she eventually realizes she must decide whether to return to her present, or stay in the past. Toward the end of this beautiful book, she concludes, “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?” […]