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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.

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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Comment Preferences

  •  Also to consider is the (12+ / 0-)

    Guardian summer reading list, published last week, and brought to my attention by the wonderful Brecht.

    The list includes several books that I've read and admired, plus two I had to order.

    The two I had to order are What Matters in Jane Austen and Careless People, a look at The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell that will be published in the States next January.

    Included novels are Sweet Tooth, Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Yellow Birds, Canada (oh, especially Canada) and what I'm currently reading, The Woman Upstairs. As readers of this series know, I think all are worthy of reading and talking about.

    There will be much to write about later, but The Woman Upstairs, the latest novel by Claire Messud, is one of those novels that I'm marking up like crazy as I "talk" to the narrator, argue with her, try to convince her to not do what she's about to do. The novel has been described as being about an angry woman who ingratiates herself with a family, which includes one of her young students, but it is about so much more than that. I just read one paragraph of dialogue from one of the other characters that says more about creating art than a pages-long essay.

    The list also includes some novels I've been meaning to read, such as Bring Up the Bodies (and I have the other Tudor Mantel novel to read as well), Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, Zadie Smith's NW, James Salter's All That Is, Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave, Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam (oh, man, do I need to get back to these three books), Jane Gardam's Last Friends (last in a loose trilogy that started with the lovely Old Filth), Charlotte Mendelson's Almost English, AM Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and Javier Marías's The Infatuations (oh, how I've been meaning to get to his work for far too long).

    This list is a great summary of some of the really interesting books out there right now. The only one I've read and was disappointed in was Skios, because the tone and plot twist shifted so abruptly. Changing tone and twisting a plot are fine if an author pulls them off, but that's not what happened here.

    •  Only my online doppelgänger, when in R&BLers, (5+ / 0-)

      is mostly wonderful - but since you cannot see my other gängers, that is enough. Thanks for your compliment, and kudos on the quality and quantity of your reading.

      I don't see clearly the mechanics of Greta. She splits in three, and goes off her separate ways, in three bodies. She cleaves apart and never cleaves together again? (How many words are their own antonym?) But you say "Greer does take care of everything by the time the end of the story comes", so perhaps the three reunite in one? A mystery of the trinity.

      There are many forms of splitting/shifting characters: Time travel; parallel universes; characters split prismatically into different hues. It sounds like the last happened to Greta, just spread out across a century. As if Greer just wanted to explore different sides to one character, and time-splitting got him there.

      Did these triplets retain some spiritual link? If one of them had a life-altering experience, did the others somehow grow in response?

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 07:41:08 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's not that Greta is split into three. There are (5+ / 0-)

        three Gretas and three Nathans and three Felixes, as well as three of a few other characters. They're all living in separate timestreams. In a Star Trek episode, they would be living in alternate universes.

        And then each of the three Gretas, at the same time, are sent into the other timelines.

        Greer didn't seem to explore the different sides to the character; he seemed more interested in wish fulfillment -- what if each of the Gretas got the thing she wanted most? Would any of them dare to alter another Greta's life, or trade places with one of the others?

        And how is your reading progressing?

        •  A year ago I was reading like a demon (they are as (4+ / 0-)

          eager to read as to sin). But I had no internet. Which was a kind of bliss. Nowadays, I am reading like a professor, chewing the text like cud to find some four-stomached epiphany.

          I just finished Scalzi's The Android's Dream. It's a breezy, exciting read, very well plotted, and deeper than it appears. Effervescent for summer. In case you haven't seen his blog, here are his 10 rules of how to be a good commenter.

          Yesterday I spent a few hours looking at lists of the Most Disturbing Books. Thinking a lot about them, for my next diary, in a week and a half. ArkDem14 has this Friday. You might update your schedule, from the queue.

          What makes a book disturbing? How can an author make disturbing stories more meaningful than grueling? Should we read disturbing books? All because I just read a fiendishly clever book, which I found mostly effective, but twisted and unsettling: Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory.

          I'm just beginning Their Eyes Were Watching God. Opening paragraphs enchanting with a poetic view.

          After that I'll need some politics, as I promised Susan from 29, two months ago, that I'd write one for the Political Book Club. I think I'll reread Griftopia, because it struck me so hard the first time. And I can link to some of Matt Taibbi's articles, which everyone should be reading.

          One day I'll be standing in a field, chewing my way through another book, and I'll find the four stomachs work naturally, and I'm digesting all this cellulose without having to scratch my head.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 11:14:28 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Does That Make You a "Guy Greta"? (4+ / 0-)

        Inquiring minds want to know. . .Are you novel-worthy?   ;^)

        As for me, I prefer to think that if virtual Brecht is such a great person, actual Brecht can't be far off the mark.  Besides, we all know you read.  And can write about it.

        Among most of us, that's all it takes to be a great person!

        Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

        by Limelite on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 02:08:34 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  We're each novel-worthy, if we could find a voice (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          which expresses our tale from the most colorful angle. If Balzac wrote the first half of my life, and Proust the second, you could get two good books out of it.

          I still think you're a bit kinder than I've earned, but thank you. Following what I said to cfk about A Christmas Carol, I believe that writing can improve a person, that examining and weaving the stuff of living and being can shape it to a wiser, warmer, larger whole.

          Psychologists (and actors) have found that playing an emotional part makes it more true: Smiling can make you a little happier. So the other Brechts can emulate the consideration and insight of this one here, typing now.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 10:10:52 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Delighted to Learn You'll Be Reviewing (3+ / 0-)

      Messud's novel in future column.  It's a book I've been vacillating over -- whether to read or not to read.

      I'll definitely be reading Bring Up the Bodies.  Finally read one of my volumes I'd so eagerly anticipated getting to since my last (7 months ago!) diary about eagerly anticipated reads for 2013.  Why did I wait? It was wonderful!  Talking about Kent Haruf's Benediction, a paean to "the precious ordinary" life.  Beautiful.

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 02:15:48 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Oh what an excellent list. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      If only summer lasted forever! But I have bookmarked and will try to get some of these before the year kicks into gear in August.

    •  Thanks for the link to the Guardian List (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      I have been tring to decide what to read next.  Am currently reading "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner, and I'm not loving it.  It was on some other Must Read list. I've been saving Being Up the Bodies for the summer, so that will be next.  Also even more eager now to read The Woman Upstairs.  So much to read, such a short summer...  Don't want to waste it on books I'm not crazy about. Probably will skip Greta -- I have a probably unjustified aversion to anything remotely resembling sci- fi.  Thanks for the review, though, and the conversation.

  •  Thank you!! (9+ / 0-)

    This is an interesting question to think about:

    But what do people who cannot change their past or present do to affect their future?
    Not sure why we can't change our present.  I like to see growth and change inwardly even if circumstances are difficult outwardly.

    I am reading Temple Grandin's, Thinking in Pictures which is about how she changed.

    I had heard about her, but this is the first book I have read.

    Best wishes for all the books you want to read.  It is happiness!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 05:27:08 PM PDT

    •  Temple Grandin is awesome. I'm not sure (7+ / 0-)

      about changing the present, only our reaction to it. But that can certainly affect the future.

      I'm having a cfk moment later this evening. My brother is bringing my niece's miniature Schnauzer here to visit over the long Fourth holiday. It's not grandchildren but as close as I'll be getting to it for some time!

    •  "It is happiness!!" I am liking. (6+ / 0-)

      Also Scalzi - finished, delicious, effervescent imagination and humor, thank you for your kindness.

      "Not sure why we can't change our present." Seems to me that, if you've got a primary plane (the time & place of the story), and you send your character to another time or place, you get two things out of it: Exciting adventures; and a larger human being when they return.

      That can happen, also, in an instant. If the kindling has been set, then one epiphany can ignite new possibilities. A Christmas Carol shows this process writ large. Scrooge can't change anything he sees in the past, present or future. But when he returns, seeing those things changed him - so this new, larger, warmer, human Scrooge can write a far happier ending.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 07:58:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Last Year's TV Documentary (3+ / 0-)

      -- not sure of the title -- about her was revealing, both of her way of thinking and perceiving and of her character and values.  Admiral and extraordinary woman.

      Here's the title Temple Grandin: The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.

      Had you seen it?  

      If I'm not mistaken, there has been a biopic, Temple Grandin, made recently that I also watched in the hope that it was an accurate depiction of her life.  Maybe you could watch it after you finish her biography and let us know what you think?

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 02:34:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I read a book called replay that I loved... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, greengemini

      About a guy who dies of a heart attack in his forties and wakes up with his memories intact as a college student.  He then lives his life to the point of his heart attack and dies again only to reawaken as a youngster again, this time several hours later.  Along the way he finds other replayers and even reveals himself to the govt in one sequence.

      Easy read and very enjoyable.

      I'm reading gaiman's American gods right now as a result of this book groups recommendations.  About a third of the way through...  I like it.

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 08:48:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the review! (7+ / 0-)

    Greta Wells doesn't sound like a book that's up my alley, but I loved reading your review anyhow.  :-)

    As for the summer reading list, Canada sounds great, doesn't it?  Hard to go wrong with Richard Ford in my limited experience.

    •  I loved Canada so much more than any (4+ / 0-)

      other Ford I've read, even Women with Men.

      Thanks for the kind words about the review and for stopping by. It's good to see you.

    •  I've Been Flirting with the Idea (4+ / 0-)

      of reading that book in the near future.  Almost bought it when Amazon reduced the price to under $4 this week, but decided to make it a library borrow instead.

      Agree with your assessment of Richard Ford.  My generation's Wallace Stegner -- that same ability to write quietly about what seems like ordinary life but which becomes extraordinary in the face of his characters confronting big events.

      I fell in love with him and his work the first time I met him years ago when he gave a reading of his short stories.  That was pre-Bascombe days.  One of America's best living writers, I think.

      Talk about antediluvian moi!

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 02:43:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I read sportswriter and one other in that series (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, RiveroftheWest, greengemini

      Reminded me of updikes rabbit series which I cannot rec highly enough.

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Wed Jul 03, 2013 at 08:51:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the review. (6+ / 0-)

    I'm not sure it's a book I'd pick up, but you make it sound intriguing enough to bear another look.

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