I’m not especially fond of novels that involve time travel. You know, the ones where a present-day protagonist races to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from firing the fatal shots in Dallas or tries to kill Adolf Hitler on a World War I battlefield. Andrew Sean Greer’s THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS, his fourth novel, is a different kind of time-travel story. While deeply rooted in historical events --- the two world wars of the 20th century and the influenza and AIDS epidemics --- it’s truly an emotionally satisfying story about identity and the persistence of love through time.
When her lover Nathan abandons her for another woman and her twin brother Felix dies of AIDS in 1985, Greta Wells, a New York City photographer, submits to 25 sessions of electroshock therapy that she’s told will alleviate her depression. Awakening the morning after the first session, however, she is greeted by “a version of my life in 1918,” in the waning days of World War I. A similar process takes her after the next treatment to early November 1941, and throughout the balance of the novel, she shuttles among these three worlds. “That is how magic works,” Greta observes. “It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing.”
"While deeply rooted in historical events --- the two world wars of the 20th century and the influenza and AIDS epidemics --- it’s truly an emotionally satisfying story about identity and the persistence of love through time."
There are subtle, but marked, differences in Greta’s life in each era. In 1918 and 1941, she is married to Nathan, while Felix now is alive but faced with the imperative to conceal his homosexuality. One Greta has a child, another a lover. As the story unfolds, the boundaries between the three eras become ever more permeable, while the contemporary Greta’s choices grow more complex as she inhabits the beings of her alter egos. Eventually she concludes that the Gretas are “three women who wanted to escape their lives, and so we did.”
The action of each period is set in and around Greta’s apartment in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Patchin Place, “a little alley west of Sixth Avenue where the city tilts drunkenly into an eighteenth-century pattern.” Although the portrait of New York life in the 1980s feels thin by comparison, Greer nicely juxtaposes the atmosphere of the city as the end of World War I and peace approach with the final placid days before the earthquake of Pearl Harbor, while capturing the transformation of New York City over the little more than two decades separating those events.
Through Greta, Greer seems curious about what is more important: to fix the mistakes we’ve made or to avoid them in the future, in this case the span of an entire life. As Greta reflects on her relationships with Nathan, Felix, and another recurring character, her colorful Aunt Ruth, Greer slowly spins an intricate web of connections that allows us to experience the sweet ephemerality of life through her eyes, what Greta calls the “mystery after mystery darting around corners, things restored and taken away again; the whole horrible beautiful magic act of my life.” It’s that wistful quality that makes this such a winning story. Every time Greta leaves one world for another, each visit becoming more urgent and poignant, like her we imagine what might have happened were she able to stay. While there are moments when the novel feels like something of a Rubik’s Cube, as Greer makes us grasp for clues to root us in each of the time shifts, he has constructed the story in a way that intensifies our involvement with every passage.
Greer’s dedication to “my mothers, grandmothers, and all the women in my life” is something of a tip-off that he intends, in this novel, to trace the shifting roles of women and their slow march toward equality, as Greta’s relation to the men in her life changes from liberation in one era to submission in another. Through his examination of the pressure Felix is under to conceal his sexual orientation in the first half of the 20th century, Greer also is attentive to the parallel struggle for equality of gay Americans.
THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS is an intriguing look at “the shifting lives we lead that we pretend belong to one person alone.” Though time travel is its vehicle, it’s a novel that’s much less about that sort of journey than it is about the even more mysterious one we take when we attempt to examine what lies at the core of our being.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 28, 2013
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells