Friday, July 19, 2013

“The Impossible happens once to each of us.”

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer

I warn you now, I’m going to gush.

The speaker of the above sentiment is the eponymous Greta Wells, the first-person narrator of Andrew Sean Greer’s fourth novel. We are introduced to her as the story opens. It’s New York City, circa 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis. She has just lost her twin brother, Felix—to whom we are introduced in a flashback that occurs not long before his death—at the age of thirty-two. Greta’s grief is almost more than she can bear. When, a few months later, her long-term relationship dissolves, it is more than she can bear. A pervading sadness leads her eventually to the door of Dr. Cerletti, who will administer a course of 25 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments over a span of 12 weeks. The doctor warns she “might experience some disorientation afterward.”

What Greta experiences is more migration than disorientation. She awakens in a different time, a different life. A different Greta. After her first treatment, Greta finds herself in 1918. World War I is nearly over. Just as she finds herself inhabiting an altered version of herself there, so too she discovers alternate versions of the most important people in her life: Nathan, the lover who left her; her beloved, bohemian aunt, Ruth; and her brother, Felix. Alive.

After her second ECT treatment, Greta awakens in yet another version of her life. It is 1941, and America is about to go to war. Here again are versions of those she loves and a new version of herself and the life she might have lived. So the months pass, spending a day or a week rotating through these different lives in 1985, 1918, and 1941, each with its own joys and sorrows. Because, as Greta learns, no life is perfect.

That is the set-up of this moving masterpiece of a novel. Mr. Greer is rather brilliant in his choice of time periods. The beginning of a war is juxtaposed with the end of a war. The plague of AIDS is juxtaposed with the Spanish influenza of 1918. Changing social mores are examined, and our protagonist gets to explore the lives she might have known if some of her fondest wishes and greatest fears came true. Ultimately, it is up to her to decide the life she will lead, in an eerie echo of her lover’s words, “I leave it to you.” Greer writes:
“A shrew, a wife, 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, or 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? All I wanted was love. A simple thing, a timeless thing. When men want love they sing for it, or they smile for it, or pay for it. And what do women do? They choose. And their lives are struck like bronze medallions. So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it was easy to be a woman?”
At times, I found it difficult to believe this novel was written by a man, so convincing was the voice of his female protagonist. I’m not sure how much I related to Greta, but I believed in her—despite a premise that required significant suspension of disbelief. And I didn’t have to love her, because I fell in love with those she loved, none more so than warm and colorful Aunt Ruth, a veritable Mrs. Madrigal of a woman, complete with kimonos. And I was deeply moved by the relationship of these fraternal twins, so eloquently conveyed by the author, a twin himself.

There are many echoes in this brief book. Echoes of other novels—though Greer’s tale is unique. I
found myself reflecting upon stories as diverse as Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and even Baum’s Oz! Greta’s life had echoes of other lives, with lines of dialogue recurring like motifs in entirely different circumstances:

“When you were a little girl, was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”

“I understood nothing! But it was a great show!”

“If only we just loved who we’re supposed to love.”

These are brief quotes, but I want to pull long passages from this novel. Greer’s prose is so beautiful it hurts. Indulge me once more:
“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—like the fairy worlds my aunt used to tease us with. You make a wish, and another world is formed in which that wish comes true, though you may never see it. And in those other worlds, the places 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? Because everyone knows this:  
That the impossible happens once to each of us.”
I was very fortunate to receive a review copy of this extraordinary novel from the publisher in late 2012. I held on to it and made it my very first read of 2013. Will it make my top 10 list for the year? Absolutely. Will it be the single best novel I read in 2013? Very likely. But more than that, this is the book I will be foisting on friends 20 years from now. My love of Greta Wells will last a lifetime.


  1. Great review! I have to check my ebooks. I think I have it, but I'm not sure. It may be on my library list. Too many books I want to read! I can't keep track of them. Wait. I seem to remember a book journal somebody gave me a while back that I'm ashamed to admit, I've never used. But it's sitting there in my cookbook and reference bookcase. Must get it out and start using it.

  2. Oh yes, Sara Leigh, do grab a copy of this one! I look forward to hearing what you think of it. I can't guarantee that you'll love it as much as I did, but I got Jon to read it and he's been raving as well.