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Please begin with an informative title:

What if you could make the things that went wrong in your life right in another time? What if some people really were granted the magic to do so?

That's the chance the protagonist receives in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel by Andrew Sean Greer that will be published this month. Her beloved twin, Felix, dies of AIDS in 1985. Her longtime lover, Nathan, leaves her for another woman. Sinking further and further into melancholy, she receives a stimulating brain treatment. It's the mechanism by which she finds herself as the Greta who lived in the same place, with the same people in 1918 and 1941.

The three Gretas rotate into their separate lives when they receive the treatments. Each has had a debilitating reason. She knows nearly the same people in each life, although the circumstances are slightly different. Sometimes she prefers one lifetime to another. When a young man falls in love with her in 1918, the modern Greta, whose husband Nathan is at war in this lifetime, does not wait for that Greta to come back. Another Greta contacts Nathan in the modern Greta's time.


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Although told only through the perspective of the modern Greta, Greer makes certain that the feelings of each era's Greta are taken into account, as well as the attitudes and feelings of the other characters. Felix is a particularly troubled character as he grapples with the mores of the other times and with being honest with himself, and it would have been interesting to spend more time with each Felix.

The greatest problem with the novel is modern Greta's motivation. The original feeling is that her despair over losing Felix is the catalyst for everything. Her Nathan, and his leaving, is pretty much an afterthought. But in the other eras, she doesn't spend much time with Felix. It is the other men in her lives who command her attention and emotions. Greer does take care of everything by the time the end of the story comes, though it may be too late for some readers. Consistency in emotional motivation is important, perhaps even more so when the timeline is not contiguous.

But this quibble does not take away from the novel's strengths. Even when grappling with keeping things straight about circumstances in each time, even with knowing Pearl Harbor is coming, even with dealing with the feelings against their family as German-Americans during two wars, the novel does now wallow in despair and sorrow. The acknowledgement of tragedy pays it respect. The overall feeling of reading about Greta and her journey, and the other Gretas, brings to mind the sheer indomitable spirit that is weakened but not defeated.

Greer, whose earlier novel is The Confessions of Max Tivoli, is concerned not only with the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, but also how people still seem make choices even though what happens to them may be inevitable. The predestination folks would find much to agree with in the resolution of this story, because in each timeline, what will be will be. It doesn't matter which Greta is there or what she does. But what do people who cannot change their past or present do to affect their future? It's a question not answered in this confection of a novel.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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