The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer(3 out of 5)
This novel starts out in 1985 with Greta, our heroine. It’s not a time of great joy in Greta’s life. Her brother Felix is dying of AIDS, as is his partner Alan. Her long-term relationship with Nathan, her live-in lover, is hanging by the rails. Her bizarre Aunt Ruth lives in the same building as Greta and Nathan, and it’s through her eccentricities that some of the lighter moments of the novel come along(there aren’t many of them, be warned. It’s an intense little tale). Shortly after the book begins, Felix passes away and Greta’s long floundering relationship with Nathan ends. Greta spins off into a great depression. Nothing seems to work, until the doctor recommends electroconclusive therapy(same as electroshock therapy, just a different name. I had to look it up, I wondered myself). After the first treatment, Greta wakes up-in 1918. Then 1941. Then 1985 again. Each time she comes to in a different time period, to find things and people in her life in radically different roles and places in their lives- as well as hers. It seems to me throughout the book that the only person who has an inkling of what she goes through every single time she comes to in another year is her Aunt Ruth. All in all, the mysteries and intricacies of time and travel blend together as she attempts to work through her grief and depression.
What do you get from this? Greta is a wonderful character, a warm and sympathetic woman who’s just lost her flesh and blood and her lover of many years. The culture shock that she spins through as she attempts to work through the twin spirals of loss is nothing short of stunning, and not something an ordinary character could handle. Greta handles it with aplomb, as much as she can, given the twists and turns the story keeps taking. Greta and Aunt Ruth- great characters who make the book unforgettable. Felix, for the time he is present, is an omnipresence whose significance not only doesn’t diminish, but continues to shine brightly throughout the novel.
I didn’t like the character of Nathan, her lover. I’m not sure if it’s because in the opening of the book, he’s leaving her for another woman, or just his general aura that makes me want to smack him with an oar. I wasn’t fond of him, even as you see his relatioinship evolve and dissolve through the years. I just had a hard time finding any good vibrations emanating from his person.
Does this radical(at the time) treatment help Greta work through her moldering depression? Does she meet someone new and learn to love again? During all of the highs and lows of the years spinning in front of her, does Greta learn to appreciate what she had, more than she already had? Do the changing times and parallels continue to haunt her? How does this electroconclusive therapy make such an impossibility happen? All of these are pertinent questions. It’s a book that you’ll have to read to see how it ends, or if it really does end.
I don’t have a problem reading a book like this, but I had a hard time embracing it wholeheartedly. Usually a book like this would have me questioning and reliving things left and right, and that wasn’t the case here. I could set the book down, come back, and pick it up a few hours later. It was very well written and easy to get into; the rapid changing scenery and culture of the times going on were historically accurate and easy to slip in and out of. There is simply something here, something undefinable, that made it hard for me to really get into it. It was a quick novel, not many pages, and Greta is a fantastic character, it’s just missing some quality that keeps me from labeling it five stars.