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Publisher's Summary

1985: After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the breakup with her longtime lover, Nathan, Greta Wells embarks on a radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her suffocating depression. But the treatment has unexpected effects, and Greta finds herself transported to the lives she might have had if she'd been born in different eras.
During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and alternate lives in 1918, where she is a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, which transforms her into a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta's three lives are remarkably similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.
As her final treatment looms, questions arise: What will happen once each Greta learns how to remain in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to stay in which life?
Magically atmospheric, achingly romantic, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells beautifully imagines "what if" and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.
©2013 Andrew Sean Greer (P)2013 HarperCollinsPublishers
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
3 out of 5 stars
By Jean on 12-05-14


This book is a bit different from the usual types of books I have been reading. The premise is deceptively simple. It is 1985, and Greta Wells, a photographer living in Greenwich Village, has suffered two losses. Her twin brother, Felix died of AIDS and her lover, Nathan, has left her for another woman. She is depressed and goes to see a psychiatrist, who sends her to Dr. Cerletti, an advocate of electroconvulsive therapy.

Instead of treating her depression it causes her to time travel. She wakes up in her own bed but not in her own time. She travel to 1918 then to 1941 and then to 1985. The location and people are the same in each time frame and all three Greta’s undergo ECT therapy.

Some arenas of historical experiences are given short shrift. Only glancing attention is paid to Greta’s material circumstance. Their careers are barely mentioned. A more troubling elision is politics. As her final treatment looms, questions arise. What will happen once each Greta learns how to stay in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to remain in which life? “The Impossible Lives of Great Wells” imagines “what if” and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.

The novels central questions—how experience changes us, and which relationships are worth sacrificing for. After reading the book I am still not sure if I like this type of story or not. Orlagh Cassidy does a great job narrating the book. It was the narrator that made this story readable for me.

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Mel on 07-06-13

Time Travel via Electroconvulsive Therapy

Romance? Time travel? An author unfamiliar to me? (Romance?!) How did this end up in my library? Unanimous praise for author Andrew Sean Greer. John Updike compared Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli to the stylings of Proust and Nabokov; the NY Times hailed Greer's best-seller Story of a Marriage as an *inspired and lyrical novel.*

Greta Wells (a tip of the hat to H.G.Wells?) is consumed with grief after suffering a double blow: the death, from AIDS, of her beloved twin brother, and the breakup with her longtime boyfriend, caught cheating with a younger woman (that would make it a triple blow). After exhausting every known treatment for her debilitating depression, her doctor suggests a series of electroconvulsive treatments so she *can be the woman she was meant to be.* She awakes from her first treatment in 1918 NY, the second treatment 1941 NY. Her twin brother and her supportive eccentric Aunt are also there living in this time period, as is Nathan, her cheating rat bastard ex. Without giving away any of the life-altering details -- Greta finds herself transported, via shock therapy, to these different times in history, equipped with the knowledge of her modern self, to live an alternate version of her life by trading places with another *Greta*. In each setting there are hardships, politically, socially, and personally: WWI and II, the influenza, the non acceptance of homosexuality, adultery, etc. Each alter-ego is faced with choices and philosophical puzzles -- once a cheater always a cheater? fix the past or arm herself with the memory? It is an intriguing dilemma that Greer adds heft to by posing some universal questions...if you "longed to live in any time but this one" what would it be, "when you were little, was this the person you dreamed of becoming?"

I have no trouble suspending belief, as long as the author doesn't mistake my agreeing to embark on the journey with him as gullability. There's no avoiding questioning if Greer crossed that line by expecting readers to overlook some elephantine flaws. Most glaringly obvious, we travel -- not by magic carpet -- but by the scientific/medical procedure of electroconvulsive therapy ...electroshock therapy in 1918? self administered? what about Greta 2 and Greta 3? I wanted to like this enough that I did overlook those issues, but it still presented some nit-picky problems. Getting into the flow of the story took me a while; several times I almost quit, but quick pacing of the story, good writing, and very good narration encouraged me onward. I admit I had trouble keeping up with the time jumping, a reason time travel doesn't always appeal to me. As a main character, Greta is not fleshed out beyond the onset of her ordeal -- there wasn't much to like or dislike about her. There were times that Greer's portrayal of Greta, his execution of her thoughts and observations, was remarkable; maybe a bit too philosophically waxy for some readers, but exceptional considering Greer's ability to write a convincing female voice.

I could easily straddle this one; fall to the north and say I loved it -- to the left of the fence and say, I didn't hate it... either way, the one certainty is that Greer has a distinctive and beautiful writing style that made this a pleasure to read/listen to. It is much more than a novel just about time travel (and it isn't a romance novel)--it challenges the listener with questions about choices, love, loss, potential, and identity. Even though this was not exactly my cup of tea, there were elements I liked very much, and Greer is an author I am looking forward to reading again. For those readers with a taste for this type of story -- I recommend and won't be surprised if it becomes a new favorite to those of you that enjoy this kind of journey of self discovery.

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19 of 23 people found this review helpful

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