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

 photo 7f980b7a-e276-4c33-8874-612ba6d3a1c0_zpse21c3dc3.jpg The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer
HarperCollins, 2013
Hardback: $26.99

Many people have thought: What would my life be like if I were born in a different era? Andrew Sean Greer answers that question and takes it a step further in his recent novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. The piece itself is an exploration of possibility, covering not only the side effects of electroshock therapy, but also the repositioning of the main character’s entire life throughout time. It asks existential questions about a person’s place in life, the concepts of security and happiness, and presents an opportunity for readers to answer for themselves.

Greta Wells is a middle-aged woman from New York City in 1985 who experiences hardships in her life from which she wanted to flee or fix. Her brother, Felix, dies of AIDS and her longtime boyfriend, Nathan, leaves her for another woman. But she is also a woman from New York in 1918 and 1941. In those eras, her husband is off at war and she takes a younger lover, and her eccentric and beloved aunt dies in a car accident that causes Greta to suffer a broken arm. Because of her depression from these events, she tries electroshock therapy as a last resort, which results in travels through time and space.

The novel begins with a reminder about how magic works. Not the stage show kind that’s flashy and fake, but the quiet kind that slips through the cracks of everyday life. Greer writes:

“Who would ever guess? Behind the gates, the doors, the ivy. Where only a child would look. As you know: 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.”

Greer’s novel doesn’t just take Greta and plop her in a different time. Everyone in her immediate life also exists, and she must relearn who they are and who they remain. The historical thread is the same in each world, though, and she follows events to the best of her memory. However, once she figures out how she’s traveling, most references to psychological breaks, sadness, or her procedure disappear. The whole reason for the novel disappears, and only its causes remain—causes that must be fixed. Her brother is in denial about his gay lifestyle in both earlier eras, she cannot reconcile her lover while she’s married in 1918, and her husband is cheating on her in 1941 before he must be deployed in WWII. Eventually, Greta desires treatments only to travel, rather than fixing her depression.

The problem with Greer’s novel is its incomplete exploration of Greta’s eras. Usually in stories about time travel, characters are warned not to change anything because it could massively affect the entire world and its future. But in Greer’s novel, there are no butterfly effects; her actions and the presence of her immediate family and friends do not change the overall outcome of historical events. Her personal world is small enough in the grand scheme of things to go unnoticed; which is normal for everyday people who are not important enough to change the world—only immediately surrounding lives. Thus, the book suggests that the only significance in someone’s life is the people included in it, and world events are only tools for setting.

But setting is still important. Setting is what drives the problems for Greta, her brother, and her husband. Setting is what introduces conflict that the characters must react to, and setting is what they all go into in the end. New York is a demanding and lively city that bother caters to “deviant” activity and condemns it. Greta finds herself exploring streets she once knew well, and finding treasures in each era that no one else realizes is there, like a key in an archway. Her apartment exists in each era as a focal point, and everything else radiates from there. Nathan is abroad in WWI as a medical officer and, upon his return, Greta doesn’t want to be married to him anymore; Felix experiences prejudice and incarceration because of his and Greta’s German descent; Felix is jailed because he’s caught at a homosexual sex party at a time when homosexuality was taboo, and Felix cannot reconcile his orientation with having a fiancé in 1918 and a wife and child in 1941. These troubles both occur in her home and return to it for sanctuary. Yet Greta cannot find any for herself. For example, in 1918, she struggles to find her place in life, as well as her 1918 self’s place. Greer writes:

“And what do I mean by free? … A shrew, a wife, or a whore. Those seemed to be my choices. I ask any man reading this, how could you decide whether to be a villain, a worker, a plaything? A man would refuse to choose; a man would have that right. But I had only three worlds to choose from, and which of them was happiness? … So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it is easy to be a woman?”

This introduces a gap in storytelling. Greta is strong and independent, despite her current slump. She uses that independence to “fix” her other lives, without remembering the context of setting. In 1918, the women’s suffrage movement has yet to culminate. She doesn’t register this cultural importance, and there should have been consequences to her actions throughout the novel, conflicts that should have reminded her about a woman’s place back then. Readers only witness an example of this when 1918 Nathan, her husband, returns from the war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though that is hidden beneath vague references of previous abuse. Her eventual punishment is indicative of PTSD mixed with abuse, but she never realizes where Nathan’s actions originate. Her mind is so fixated on traveling and “correcting” each life that she doesn’t consider why things are the way they are, only that they are “wrong.”

But this book isn’t just about women. Here Greer bypasses the storytelling gap and introduces a tangent path. He turns around Greta’s questions about security and self-assertion and applies them to more than just women. Felix, Greta’s gay twin brother, suffers similar moments of doubt. “When is it all going to be all right? For someone like me?” he asks. This question aligns him, and thus gay men, with Greta’s feminine plight of choices and placement. In the main character’s time of 1985, during the AIDS epidemic, the world isn’t yet “all right.” Although Greer reveals a generational relationship progression—what is deemed acceptable—between 1918, 1941, and 1985, he also makes readers think: What about our time? In 2014, people have greater rates of acceptance, but still haven’t reached a time “when it is going to be all right.”

This may be the novel’s main point: What is considered to be “all right”? Is a story with gaps still “all right,” though it suggests the need for more maturation before publication? If people could change situations by time traveling, would they be better off? And while Greer waxes poetic about love, death, and goodbyes, he also points readers’ gazes toward the future. In another thirty years, will it finally be “all right” for people to choose love, happiness, and placement without judgment? Greer doesn’t answer that question. But perhaps that’s all right.

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He studied writing as Brown University before moving to Missoula, Montana, to receive a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana. He later wrote for Nintendo, taught at a community college, published in literary magazines, and then published a collection of stories before releasing his novels. He has taught at universities, has won a number of awards. He lives in San Francisco with his husband in a house adjoining that of his twin brother.


Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose