The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

(artwork found on the New York Times website, here)

“They say there are many worlds, all around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. Each with its own logic, its own physics, moons and stars. We cannot go there — we would not survive in most. But there are some, as I have seen, almost exactly like our own. . . . And in those other worlds, the places you love are there, the people you love are there. Perhaps in one of them, all rights are wronged, and life is as you wish it. So what if you found the door? And what if you had the key?”

Greta Wells is a woman whose life is falling apart. It is late 1985, and her much loved twin brother, Felix, has just succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. It was a miserable death, and the hole that his absence leaves in her life is unbearable. Her 10-year relationship with her lover, Nathan, has just ended. She cannot bear the pain anymore, and so she goes to a psychiatrist, who prescribes a series of electroconvulsive therapy sessions. “Will it change me?” Greta asks, before her first session. “Not at all, Miss Wells,” he replies. “What has changed you is your depression. What we’re trying to do is bring you back.”

So Greta goes through the sessions, and the impossible happens…Greta is transported to what appears to be an alternate reality, one where she is the same, the people around her are the same, the city and Manhattan apartment are the same, but the time is different. Her first jump takes her to 1918. In this reality, Greta and Nathan are married, and Nathan is away at War. Her next jump takes her to 1941, and again, Greta and Nathan are married, though war has not yet come. In both realities, Felix is there, healthy and alive, but trying mightily to conquer his sexuality. Each jump takes her to one of these times, and brings the Gretas from those times into the same pattern.

Along the way, while trying to figure out if she can fix what she feels is broken in her own reality, Greta learns how much the era in which one lives shapes them, and she starts to suspect that while this Felix and Nathan are very much like hers, they are not the same. And so, mustn’t the other Gretas be different in small yet fundamental ways?

I really liked this book. I tore through the majority of it in one long reading session. I liked the voice put forward by the author, Andrew Sean Greer. I’m thinking I might want to look into some of his other novels next.

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5 thoughts on “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

  1. Yet another book where you make me really want to stop everything else I’m doing and read it!

    It’s possible that i just don’t read enough novels. I love your reviews and faithfully add the subjects of many of them (like this one) to a very long list but I just don’t read enough. Or maybe I read too many children’s books.

    On the other hand, I *am* finally tackling *this* behemoth – 1120 pages of the tiniest print imaginable.

  2. I wonder how long it will be before Hollywood buys this and turns it into a movie? It is an intriguing premise, and if the narrative is gripping (which, as you say, is) then it will probably be on the silver screen soon enough.

    • I think I read that Madonna called the author herself to convince him to sell her the rights. I don’t think that bodes well.

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