Monday, October 14, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer. HarperCollins, 2013

After her twin brother dies and her lover of many years abruptly leaves her, Greta Wells sinks into an unrelenting depression. Nothing she tries for it works. As a last ditch effort, she tries a series of shock treatments that have unexpected side effects: she finds herself first in 1918, then, after a second treatment, in 1941, before returning to 1985 after a third one. That she travels in time is weird enough, but in each era she is still Greta Wells, and the full cast of characters from her life is there, too: her aunt Ruth, lover Nathan, her brother Felix, Felix’s lover Alan as well as Dr. Cerletti to give her the shock treatments. Each era has differences, too; in both 1918 and 1941 Greta and Nathan are married, Felix is still alive but deeply closeted instead of living with Alan, one Greta has a child, one a lover. Yes, there are multiple Gretas- every time ‘our’ Greta changes eras, so do the other Gretas. This is not really a time travel story, because it makes no sense that the same set of people would exist in multiple times; it’s more a story of multiple universes. But that’s not the important part of the story. It’s the relationships that are important.

In each era, Greta places a different relationship in the primary place. To one, it’s Nathan, To another Greta, it’s her lover. To the third, it’s brother Felix. Each Greta is dealing with loss and/or the possibility of loss; the 1918 influenza pandemic, World War 2 starting in 1941 and an auto accident, AIDS in 1985. In each era, the Gretas are trying to fix the relationships most important to them.

But I had a hard time caring about Greta very much; she managed, despite her traveling in alternate worlds, to be boring. I didn’t like Nathan, who wasn’t much more than a cardboard cheater. Aunt Ruth was the most appealing but even she was sort of a generic eccentric, crazy enough to believe Greta’s tale of time travel. The book does, however, serve up a great line, uttered by Felix to a horrible rude woman: "When you were a little girl, Madam.....was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?" It’s a good question, one that propelled Greta to try and get things right in all three eras. It’s also a question we should all ask ourselves, before it’s too late to make things turn out better.  I admit the ending surprised me, but that wasn’t enough to make me love the book. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy the books, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.

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