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Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

I bought this book after it came up as a recommendation on Amazon. Having not long finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the blurb and reviews (which linked it to Atkinson’s work and The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I also loved) sealed the deal for me. I’d never heard of the author, Andrew Sean Greer, but after reading Greta Wells story, I will be seThe Impossible Lives of Greta Wellseking out his other novels… But for the moment, I want to savour this one.

This is a simply lovely, haunting book that tells the story of Greta Wells, a young woman in New York in 1985 whose beloved twin brother, Felix, is dying of the scourge of the 1980s on, AIDS. Tha
t is never articulated, but it is evident. Greta lives with her doctor partner, Nathan, and her eccentric aunt, Rita, lives downstairs. Grieving for her brother, she

is sent to a specialist who recommends she has ECT and so she does and the impossible happens – Greta is flung into not one other version of her life, but two – 1919 and 1941.

In these two other periods, the dead come back to life, possibilities are within reach and tragedy can yet unfold. Segueing between three lives (she returns to the novel’s present as well) and maintaining awareness of all three, Greta learns that perhaps she can become the woman she always thought she could be… Only, she discovers, who you are is also contingent on the time you’re born in and the choices available to you and though Greta understands the choices she and her other selves should make, never mind her brother and other characters, life isn’t that simple…especially not when a war has just concluded, another is unresolved and where a plague strikes down those you love.

I can see why this book has been compared to Atkinson and TTTW, it shares some of the tropes and themes but, Greer himself uses Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy and Neverland as analogies and there is a sense in which these are far more apt. There is something both mythical and magical (as well as tragic and triumphant) about Greta’s lives. She is like Alice down the rabbit hole or consuming food and drink that alters her perspective. She is Dorothy, whisked away from certainty and the known to the unfamiliar and dangerously marvellous. While she time travels and thus carries with her knowledge and awareness of the future that can be earth-shattering and life changing in the macrocosmic sense, this story isn’t concerned with that. On the contrary, Greta cares only for the way larger issues (war, sexuality, disease, prejudice, ethnicity,love, fidelity, truth) impacts upon those she loves and her immediate lives – the microcosmic – and, in that sense, there is a veracity to this book despite its fantastical premise and the massive suspension of disbelief the author requires of the reader. It is one we happily make because the characters and their story – which is personal, yes, but also ripples outwards to envelop us all – are worth investing in and their concerns are that which we all ponder and try to realize in varying degrees.

Written in lilting, lovely prose, the philosophical musings of Greta touch on eternal questions of love and life and purpose. What do we deserve? Are we all entitled to happiness? Is context everything? Can we alter these things and should we even if we can?

This is a book that lingers in the heart and soul long after you put it down. So glad I read it and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a damn fine and meaningful read. I didn’t want it to finish.

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