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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells    by Andrew Sean Greer order for
Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

When Greta Wells becomes depressed after the death of her twin brother Felix, and shortly thereafter the breakup with her lover of ten years, her therapist (Nathan) offers her a new treatment. She's afraid to undergo it, but her depression is so deep that she is desperate for relief. Dr. Cerletti warns her that the electroconvulsive therapy might cause 'some disorientation afterwards' as well as 'a slight dizziness. Possibly, just possibly, hallucinations. Not knowing where you are, quite who you are for a moment. Some people have auditory hallucinations, bells ringing, that sort of thing.' He believes that the treatment is necessary to relieve her depression, so she agrees to try it.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is the story of what happens to her as her treatment actually causes her to return in time from 1985, first to 1918, then to 1941, and then back to 1985 - she travels in time through these cycles after each treatment. She is always Greta and always has a twin brother Felix, but she is surprised to find herself married to Nathan in 1918 and 1941. The treatment that Dr. Cerletti gives her is slightly different in each world, but so is the cause of the depression that the different Gretas experience as they all cycle together through time.

Because of Dr. Cerletti's warning about possible disorientation after the procedures, when she first wakes up in 1918, she tells her brother and her Aunt Ruth that she's 'not who they think she is.' Aunt Ruth is such an unusual person that she takes the information in stride when Greta confides in her. Greta learns that the 1918 and 1941 versions of herself are also getting treatment from Dr. Cerletti, who seems to be more of a magician than a therapist. Although Felix, his lover Alan, Nathan, Aunt Ruth, and Dr. Cerletti are part of all three worlds, there are some significant differences in how they all relate to Greta.

The time periods are interesting. In 1985, many men were dying of AIDs, including Greta's beloved brother Felix. In 1918, World War I had just ended, and in 1941, the United States was just about to become embroiled in World War II after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Greta is delighted to find Felix still alive in the earlier time periods, but as she has more and more treatments, she realizes that there are strong differences in all of the people she loves because of the different time periods and their life experiences in those times. We learn, with Greta, about the difficulties that Felix faces as a gay man in each time period, not fatal for him as AIDs is fatal, but terrible and dangerous in different ways. We also learn about the ways in which women's freedom is constricted.

This is an engrossing, thought-provoking story about love, loss, death, and how we overcome grief. Our 1985 Greta grows and changes as she experiences her impossible lives, and although she never really knows the other two Gretas as well as she knows herself, she learns a lot about them from her Aunt Ruth. She also finds out about their feelings and lives from the diary of one, a mysterious letter that arrives for the other one, and other clues. Anyone who enjoys time travel novels will like this intricate and imaginative story.

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