The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells – Andrew Sean Greer

ILGWAndrew Sean Greer is a gifted writer, of that there is no doubt, however something integral was missing from The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Although on the surface this story bears more than a passing resemblance to The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel that I not only cried copiously while reading but was literally reduced to openly sobbing (in front of my husband no less) the first time I read it yet I was left strangely unmoved upon completing The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.   

When you were a little girl, madam,” he said, gesturing to her, “was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?

Andrew Sean Greer’s protagonist Greta Wells explores that question in three different incarnations. The electroconvulsive therapy that her doctor prescribes for the paralyzing depression she suffers after the death of her twin brother has a startling and unexpected result. With each treatment she awakens in one of three versions of herself each living in a different time surrounded by varying versions of her friends and family.

Greer perfectly captures the oppressive immobilizing quality of a treatment resistant clinical depression. The dual blows of her twin’s death and her abandonment by her long time lover Nathan, has crippled Greta and when conventional treatment fails her doctor suggests the radical option of electroconvulsive therapy.

During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and her alternate lives in 1918, as a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, as a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta’s three lives are achingly similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.

While the circumstances of Greta’s treatment and the impossible result was interesting I found I had problems identifying with or even empathizing with her character. In contrast, I found the struggles her brother had in his lives in 1918 and 1942 as a closeted gay man far more compelling. I hesitate to say this but wonder if it all comes back to the old writing adage of “writing what you know” and Greer as a contemporary homosexual was just far more adept at crafting his male characters than his female protagonist. Regardless, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells was skillfully written with an interesting concept and would definitely appeal to fans of Daphne Du Maurier’s House on the Strand and Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return.

AUTHOR: Andrew Sean Greer

RATING: 3 Stars

GENRE: Literary Fiction


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