In the year 1985, Greta Wells has suffered a great loss, and in the aftermath of the death of her twin brother Felix, life hits her with another doozy when her long-term boyfriend leaves her. Greta eventually seeks out psychiatric treatment for her deep depression, but the arsenal of antidepressants available in the 80s doesn’t do the trick. As a last resort, she accepts her doctor’s suggestion of electroconvulsive therapy, what most people only knew as electroshock therapy, and she begins to experience the most unexpected of side effects. So opens Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a complex novel that explores the idea of alternate lives in a unique presentation of time travel.
Before Greta lays down for the first of her proposed twenty-five treatments that will take place over the course of four months, she asks one key question of her doctor.
“Will it change me?” I asked the doctor.
Dr. Cerletti considered this very carefully. “Not at all, Ms. Wells. What has changed you is your depression. What we’re trying to do is bring you back.”
An interesting, and somewhat prophetic, choice of words from her doctor, as the treatments do just that- bring Greta back into time. When she awakens the day following a treatment, she finds herself in another time. Still in New York City, and most intriguing of all, still essentially her– still Greta, still living in the same location even. She finds herself in alternate lives, as it were, surrounded by the same cast of important characters in her life as in 1985, but each life she visits differs in ways characteristic to the decade. She soon discovers that some aspects of her life are impossible to escape, regardless of the era or the conventions of the time.
Greta comes to find that she not only enjoys the travels, but she longs to work to better each alternative Greta’s life, but what that means to her might not be consistent with the opinion of the Greta who usually resides in that time. For, she quickly comes to figure out, that when she wakens in a different decade, so the other Greta’s are displaced, as well. If she is having an effect on their lives, what effects are they causing in hers?
Though the plot points differ greatly between this novel and my favorite of all time The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to some of the thematic elements at play here, and those were perhaps the things I loved most about this book. Greta can travel to other times and other lives, but she continues to face the same issues of love and betrayal, and she never loses her own sense of self. She remains herself, but must find a way to live within the context of another time and another life. By pretending to be another Greta, she makes discoveries about the person she truly longs to be.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells was highly entertaining and emotionally compelling, though I let myself get perhaps a bit too obsessed with tracking and charting Greta’s travels, and when I came to small details that appeared inconsistent, I got hung up in trying to figure it all out. I would highly recommend other readers ignore any potential desires to draft up charts like this crazy reader and simply enjoy the wild, wild ride that is Greta’s travels.