THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS
Andrew Sean Greer
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
This new novel is predicated on an inspired plot device. The year is 1985 and Greta Wells is suffering from a crippling depression. She has lost her beloved twin brother Felix to AIDS and numerous other friends and acquaintances. But on top of that, her long-term lover Nathan has left her for another woman, whom he quickly impregnates. Barely able to function, Greta agrees to undergo a course of electroconvulsive therapy. But after the first treatment, something very strange occurs: Greta awakes the next morning in her own bedroom, but in a different time – October 1918. Then after the next treatment, she finds herself in 1941, and then after the third treatment, she is returned back to 1985; and this cycle of time travelling continues after each ECT treatment.
In each time, Greta is (mostly) surrounded by the same family and friends, though their circumstances can be quite different. Greta is delighted to find her twin Felix alive in 1918, though she is dubious of his situation: engaged to a senator’s daughter and having a secret affair with Alan (his lover from 1985). While in 1941, he’s married with a child, and again is clandestinely seeing Alan. Greta quickly realises that there are two other Gretas on the same ECT-induced time-travelling spree. All three of them have suffered some kind of loss, so the time-travelling presents a remarkable opportunity to put something right or even rewrite history. 1985 Greta has a second chance with Nathan, but also can’t help herself from meddling in her brother’s closeted romantic life.
All of this time-hopping might sound complicated, but Greer unfolds the narrative so that it isn’t. There are also many clever parallels and reflections between the different periods: the Spanish flu epidemic with the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and the ending of WWI with America becoming drawn into WWII. But as the ECT treatment is for a limited number of sessions, Greta knows her time-hopping will be forced to end and this finality hovers over the latter stages of the book. To his immense credit, Greer’s conclusion to the book is surprising but apt and profoundly satisfying.
Pictured Above: Andrew Sean Greer
The book has also just had a major celebrity endorsement − Madonna loved it and snapped up the film rights right after it was published!