Early in novelist Andrew Sean Greer’s new title, his protagonist, Greta Wells, experiences both a profound loss and a betrayal, one after the other. First, her brother dies of complications from AIDS, and then her boyfriend deserts her for another woman; the one-two punch leaves her unable to function. After trying antidepressants in hopes of eliminating the sadness she likens to an ever-elusive deep-sea creature, Greta resorts to electroconvulsive therapy in order to, as her doctor implies, “reset her brain.” The results of this treatment are the impossible lives of the novel’s title, as Greta begins living three different incarnations of herself in three different times—at the end of WWI in 1918, just before the U.S. entered WWII in 1941 and her current life in 1985.
As in his The Confessions of Max Tivoli, the manipulation of time drives Greer’s latest. Though Greta moves from era to era, she remains in New York City throughout. Here is where Greer’s research really shines, as we see how the city changes in its fashions as well as its social manners and mores. Greer brings back buildings that have since been wiped off the present map, and reveals hidden doors within famed landmarks. His elegant and wistful prose follows Greta from existence to existence, but she must eventually choose one in which to remain.
Still, despite its inventive construction, the novel’s plot is disappointingly conventional. Certain damsels are created to be put in distress, and Greta is little more than a slate onto which the inherent helplessness of her situation is projected. Compared with the rich events happening around her and the complexity of the mechanics behind her time travel, the heroine comes across, at best, as a passive participant in her own life. In the end, the most unbelievable aspect of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is Greta herself.