Friday, June 27, 2014

Greta Wells, Times Three

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

It is 1985, and Greta Wells is not doing so well. Her brother Felix recently passed away, her long-term lover Nathan has left, and she is just overcome with a lack of emotion. In order to "fix" this, Greta begins to see a doctor, who recommends a long set of treatment--electroshock therapy. As Greta is shocked, her life shifts. She is no longer Greta of the '80s, but now she is Greta in 1918. She has the same family, the same house, but everything is different. Then in 1918 Greta undergoes shock therapy, and she awakens in 1941. When she has the therapy in 1941, she is then back in 1985. The cycle continues throughout Greta's therapy sessions, with the other Gretas traveling to the other time periods as well (although we don't actually get their viewpoints, except through a few journal entries). There are similar threads running through each Greta's life, including infidelity, mortality, and depression. Every Greta has lost something or someone recently, causing her depression and subsequent therapy.

This book was not necessarily easy to read, as the characters in each time period are essentially the same. It was a little too easy to forget if we were in 1941 or 1918, since many of the same characters had similar attributes in each world. Each chapter is headed with whatever year Greta currently resides in, though, so I could flip back for an idea. The author is definitely saying something about the role of the woman in these time periods, since in each time, Greta struggles with what she is "allowed" to do, and what is expected of her. In some ways, Greta finds these rules freeing, if only because they bring a sense of order to her life. Yet Greta is a woman of the '80s, fully liberated and at times offended by the lack of attention given to her ideas and suggestions.

Greta is surrounded by her lover/husband Nathan (different depending on the time), brother Felix, and aunt Ruth. Each character is rooted in their time period. For example, Nathan is part of WWI in 1918, and WWII in 1941. Felix, a gay man, is stifled by the expectations that he marry a nice girl and settle down, as opposed to be open with the world.

The central ideas of the book seem to revolve around fixing each Greta's world. I guess a sort of "fresh eyes" kind of idea. Each Greta seems to alter the others' lives, whether it be through a need to relive their own familiar lives, or simply by trying to hard. The main Greta is determined to fix her family's lives in 1918 and 1942, even if they aren't ready for the change.

Not being a big fan of time travel, I picked up this book with a good amount of hesitancy. It had been compared to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and recommended by a fellow librarian. Since Atkinson's work seemed too big for me to handle, I thought this book may be a better alternative. I grew to like the book, although it took me until about halfway into the book to really feel the pull to keep reading. Greer tackles some pretty tough issues, such as AIDS, infidelity, post-traumatic stress (although not yet called that), and juggles three stories without getting me too lost. It's not necessarily an easy read, but it is worthwhile.

~Cailey W.

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