Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells," by Andrew Sean Greer

I thought Andrew Sean Greer’s novel “The Story of a Marriage” was beautifully written (and the San Francisco setting was a bonus!). So when his new novel, “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), came out, I planned to read it. Then the idea that it was about a character who, because of electroshock treatments given to her to treat her depression (because of her brother’s terrible death, and the breakup of her marriage) in 1985, finds herself living in three different time periods (1985, 1918, and 1941), made me reluctant to read it. As readers of this blog may remember, I generally shy away from anything that smacks of science fiction, even very literary science fiction. But on second thought, I realized that the book was still character- and history-driven, and the time travel conceit was only a way of getting at how we all have different possible (although here titled “impossible”) lives, so I decided to read it after all. Hearing, by chance, the tail end of an engaging talk by the author at one of my favorite local independent bookstores, Book Passage in Corte Madera, increased my interest in the novel. So I did read it, liked the novel, and found it intriguing. It was fascinating to see the same characters in three different time periods, all in New York City. But I can’t say I loved it, and I am not sure why. Perhaps it was too schematic as it cycled through the three time periods. At times it was a bit confusing as well. Sometimes it just dragged a little. And there was perhaps too much musing, mourning, wondering, philosophizing by Greta. I did like the characters (Greta, her twin brother Felix, her husband Nathan, Felix’s lover Alan, Greta’s lover Leo, and Greta’s Aunt Ruth), found them interesting, and felt for their often difficult lives. Their difficulties mainly arose from living in the disastrous times of two wars, World Wars I and II, as well as from the sadness of the closeted lives the gay characters had to lead (in 1918 and 1941) and then the tragedy of AIDS (in 1985). Finally we are left to ponder the question “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as angels?” Why indeed?

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