Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
Published June 2013
A depressed Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy, which transports her to alternate past lives.
We meet Greta Wells in the 1980s in the middle of the AIDS crisis.
She has just lost her twin brother Felix to it, and can’t move past her grief.
With no alternatives left, she turns to electroshock (electroconvulsive) therapy. She is prescribed 25 courses of ECT, and is shocked (haha! See what I did there) when her first one throws her into another life in another time.
With each treatment, she visits her lives in 1918, 1941, and 1986.
In one of her memories of Felix, she recalls him posing this question to a ride woman:
“When you were a little girl, Madam…..was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”
Greta’s in a spot of life where we don’t know that this is the woman she would have wanted to become. Her relationship has failed. Her soulmate brother is dead. Her career is middling at best.
When she is shocked into her other lives, she gets to see the alternatives to what might have been. She could have been adulterous. She could have married the man who got away. She could have been a mother. She could have had Felix back in her life.
As with her current life, each eventuality is laced with good things and bad, each with their own dramas and sweet exhalations and crises.
In all three of her impossible lives, though, Greta Wells has few choices.
“A shrew, a wife, a whore. Those seemed to be my choices. I ask any man reading this, how could you decide whether to be a villain, a worker, or a plaything? A man would refuse to choose; a man would have that right. But I had only three words to choose from, and which of them was happiness? All I wanted was love. A simple thing, a timeless thing. When men want love they sing for it, or smile for it, or pay for it. And what do women do? They choose. And their lives are struck like bronze medallions. So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it was easy to be a woman?”
The mens’ lives are full of possibility. But Greta’s seem to be trapped to varying forms of domesticity.
New worlds are opened to her, but those worlds are still extremely confined.
Maybe Greta’s lives are impossible no matter what time period she lives in. It’s a fascinating journey Greer takes us on, showing the different characters at different levels of impossibility within their lives. For Greta, it’s being female. For her brother, it’s being gay.
Turns out, Greer shows that some things are timeless: marginalized people.