Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells: a review

In THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS (HarperCollins, 2013), Andrew Sean Greer has once again imagined a world for us to inhabit so well that, by the end of reading, we might be able to say, "I've been there." This time, it is the island of Manhattan spread out among three eras. Greer gives us the character of Greta Wells, a woman who becomes unstuck in time just as Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE or Henry DeTamble in Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE.

For Greta Wells, however, the times are predetermined. She will travel to either 1918 or 1941 rather than land in an unknown time, uncertain of who she will meet or how to react. In her present life, in 1985, Greta Wells is suffering from depression brought on by a great loss in her family. She's offered a series of treatments by her doctor, a new form of the antiquated procedure of electrotherapy. Something happens, though, and with each jolt of electricity in the series, Greta Wells is sent to another time for a matter of days until the next procedure is administered. For these days spent in the past, she lives the life of that time's Greta Wells. She is the same woman whose life is altered in various ways, as though she's looking into several different mirrors, each with its own altering fissure.

There are issues that speak to the times that face each Greta Wells: epidemics of influenza and the AIDS virus, world wars, the limitations of women in society, Prohibition and politics. THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS posits the theory held by physicists and novelists for centuries that we may not live our life on one plane of existence and time. That while we are awakening in our house each morning, making a pot of coffee, checking e-mail, rousing the kids for school, that there is another us in another time living a similar life in his own version of morning. Time is not linear, Greer assumes, but deep. It repeats and folds in upon itself, and while our actions here today have specific consequences, the same actions in another lifetime might have set our lives on an entirely different track. It's a freeing feeling, I think, to know we may have more than one chance at all of this.
Above all, though, the novel is the story of relationships and how the issues remain the same regardless of era or circumstance. Though actions may alter the course of a day or a lifetime, the ways in which we regard and interact with family, friends and lovers are ever present. While Greta Wells bounces from decade to decade and comes to know husbands, aunts, children and lovers from the past, there is no relationship more prevalent than that between her and her twin brother Felix. It is their bond that acts as balast and holds her fast to each time period in which she finds herself. Her determination to hold on to him, to make life better for him and protect him, causes her to question her very place in history.

I found the construction of this book to be a surprise. I'd expected it to be more like Niffenegger's tale with the protagonist flying through time, never knowing just where she might land. Greer's book allows more structure for Greta Wells, and us, by knowing where she's heading. I wasn't disappointed. Quite the opposite, in fact, as reading the novel helped me to better see a way to build a manuscript I'm currently working on (thank you for that!). 

I do wonder why Greer chose the specific times he did, though. The onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s plays heavily into the story and is juxtaposed with an influenza outbreak in 1918, as well as the ending of World War I. The jump to 1941, of course, coincides with the ramping up to America's involvement in World War II. But there are events throughout the 20th century that would have worked as well. This isn't a criticism, but a curiosity. While reading, I imagined Greer sitting at a desk with three calendars opened before him, each to a different year, and he would move back and forth to write what was happening in a particular month of any particular year.

By the end, the Greta Wells we are first introduced to, a woman made small and helpless in grief, is in control of her destiny and has choices to make that will resonate through her life, the lives of those close to her, and history itself. To make such a decision, she calls upon wisdom gained from every plane of her life, from every life lived. Her life may seem impossible to her at times, but time is only an obstacle to be overcome. Once she's made her choice, the pieces seem to fall into place.

Other novels by Andrew Sean Greer:

The Path of Minor Planets (my review)
The Confessions of Max Tivoli
The Story of a Marriage (my review)