The Impossible Lives of Greta Wellsby Andrew Sean Greer
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 the Greta of 1985 finds herself transported to remarkably similar lives in different eras—as a bohemian and adulteress… See more details below
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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 the Greta of 1985 finds herself transported to remarkably similar lives in different eras—as a bohemian and adulteress in 1918, and a devoted wife and mother in 1941—fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices.
Traveling through time, the modern Greta learns that each reality has its own losses and rewards, and that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs. And as the final treatment looms, one of these other selves could change everything.
Magically atmospheric, achingly romantic, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells beautifully imagines "what if" and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.
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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
By Andrew Greer
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Andrew Greer
All rights reserved.
October 30, 1985
The impossible happens once to each of us.
For me, it was near Halloween in 1985, at my home
in Patchin Place. Even New Yorkers find it hard to spot: a little
alley west of Sixth Avenue where the city tilts drunkenly into an
eighteenth- century pattern, allowing for such fanciful moments
as West Fourth crossing West Eighth and Waverly Place crossing
itself. There is West Twelfth and Little West Twelfth. There is
Greenwich Street and Greenwich Avenue, the last of which takes
a diagonal route along the old Indian trail. If any ghosts still walk
there, carrying their corn, no one sees them, or perhaps they are
unrecognizable among the freaks and tourists out at all hours,
drunk and laughing by my doorstep. They say the tourists are
ruining everything. They say they have always said that.
But I will tell you: Stand on West Tenth where it meets Sixth
Avenue, in the turreted shadow of the old Jefferson Market Court-
house with its tall tower. Turn until you see a set of iron gates,
so easy to miss, peer through the bars and there: no more than
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
half a city block, lined with thin maples, dead- ending half a dozen
doorways down, nothing glamorous, just a little broken alley of
brick three- story apartment buildings, built long ago to house the
Basque waiters at the Brevoort, and there at the end, on the right,
just past the last tree, our door. Scrape your shoes on the old shoe
brush embedded in the concrete. Walk through the green front
door, and you might turn left to knock on my aunt Ruth's apart-
ment, or walk upstairs and knock on mine. And at the turn of the
staircase, you might stop and read the heights of two children,
mine in red grease pencil and, high above in blue, that of my twin
Patchin Place. The gates locked and painted black. The houses
crouched in solitude. The ivy growing, torn down, growing again;
the stones cracked and weedy; not even a borough president would
look left on his hurrying way to dinner. Who would ever guess?
Behind the gates, the doors, the ivy. Where only a child would
look. As you know: That is how magic works. It takes the least
likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choos-
ing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one
Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.
Let me start nine months before it happened, in January, when
I was out with Felix to walk Alan's dog. We had locked the green
door behind us, and were making our way past the ice- covered gates
of Patchin Place while the dog, Lady, sniffed each barren patch of
dirt. Cold, cold, cold. The wool collars of our coats were pulled up
and we shared Felix's scarf, wound once around each of our necks,
October 30, 1985
connecting us, my hand in his pocket and his in mine. He was my
twin, but not my double, so while he shared my flushed cheeks and
bent nose, my red hair and pale complexion, my squinting blue
eyes— “fox faced,” our aunt Ruth called us— he was taller, greater
somehow. I had to steady Felix on the ice, but he insisted on going
out that night without his cane; it was one of his good nights. I still
found him so ridiculous in his new mustache. So thin in his new
overcoat. It was our thirty- first birthday.
I said, “It was such a lovely party.”
Everywhere the shivering hush of a New York winter: the
glimpses of high apartments, the shimmer of the frozen streets,
the muted glow of restaurants late at night, pyramids of snow at
corners hiding trash and coins and keys. The sound of our steps
on the sidewalk.
“I was thinking,” he said. “After I die, I want you to have
a birthday party where everyone comes dressed as me.” Always
thinking of a party. I remember him as bossy and self- righ teously
moral as a child, the kind who assigned himself as “fire captain”
and forced the rest of the family through ridiculous drills. After
our parents' death, however, and especially after he escaped our
shared scrawny adolescence, all that ice melted at once— he be-
came almost a convert to the side of fire itself. He grew restless if a
day had no great event in store; he planned many of them himself,
and would throw anyone a party if it meant drinks and costumes.
Our aunt Ruth approved.
“Oh hush,” I said. “I'm sorry Nathan had to leave early. But
he's been working, you know.”
“Did you hear me?”
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
I looked at him, his freckled face, that red mustache. Dark
commas beneath his eyes. Thin and scared and quiet, all the fire
burnt away inside him. Instead of answering, I said, “Look at the
ice on all the trees!”
He let Lady sniff at a fence. “You'll make Nathan dress up in
my old Halloween costume.”
He laughed. “No, Ethel Mermaid. You can sit him in an arm-
chair and feed him drinks. He'll like that.”
“You didn't like our birthday?” I said. “I know it wasn't much.
Could you please teach Alan to bake a cake?”
“Our birthday cheers me up.” We walked along, looking up at
silhouettes in windows. “Don't neglect Nathan.”
The light caught the ice on the trees, electrifying them.
“It's been ten years. Maybe he could use a little neglect,” I
said, holding his arm to steady him.
On the cold winter street, I heard Felix whisper, “Look there's
He nodded in the direction of a hair salon that had always
graced the corner. In the window, a sign: closed for business. My
brother stood for a moment
Excerpted from The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Greer. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Greer. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
“The premise of this novel isn’t that a woman travels through time: it’s that ‘the impossible happens once to each of us’…What this wonderful novel teaches us is how magic works.”
“Andrew Sean Greer is one of the most talented writers around, feeling and funny, with a genuinely fine prose style and a sensibility to match.”
Meet the Author
Andrew Sean Greer is the bestselling author of The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was a Today book club selection and received a California Book Award. He lives in San Francisco.
- San Francisco, California
- Date of Birth:
- November 21, 1970
- Place of Birth:
- Washington, D.C.
- B.A. in English, Brown University, 1992; M.F.A . in Fiction, University of Montana, 1996
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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What a turn of phrase Mr. Greer has! This book combines so many messages - hope, despair, love, acceptance - all with a time-travel plot that is unexpected but somehow rings true. I got from this that we are all one person but with many personas, and one cannot exist without the other. How true, and I will be reading the rest of his books now that I've discovered him!
...like alternate lives (or is it reincaration?), free will, boundaries, and the nature of time, all in a palatable serving of fiction. Greta Wells in 1985 has lost her twin brother to AIDS and her long-time lover to ennui and discontent. Now she suffers from debilitating depression that won't respond to anything but a series of electroshock sessions. The mechanism used by her doctor not only propels her out of her funk, it knocks Greta from 1985 into different time periods. She's still herself, but she steps into another Greta's life, with friends and relatives there as well, but playing different roles in these alternate lives. Her present day ex-lover is there in 1918, but unhappily involved with another. Her twin brother is alive, but a closeted gay man who affects nonchalance about his furtive liasons. In 1941, her beloved aunt, an emotional bulwark in both 1918 and 1985, died in a traffic accident, and Greta suffers the loss months after 1941 Greta mourned. This Greta is married with kids, but wondering if domesticity is really enough to fulfill her. Someone said that time exists so everything won't happen all at once, and space exists so it doesn't happen on top of itself. Einstein posited that perception is distorted when traveling near the speed of light (as one would if they could go to different eras); Heisenberg pointed out that merely perceiving an act could and would change the outcome of that act. When one of the Gretas opts not to undergo her scheduled shock treatment, it makes today's Greta fearful-- and excited. Can she make it back to 1985? Can she change her life so completely, and step on to an alternate path for more than just the few days between sessions? Does she really want to? questions we all must ask if we are to live an examined life. If not we succumb to quiet desperation, and Greta has been undergoing multiple shock treatments to escape that desperation. Her journey(s) make for an interesting ride. RoseQuartz29
I GIVE FIVE STARS TO THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS. (Some people on Goodreads¿ were not very kind, and their reasons for low scores made no sense.) I don't care what anyone else thinks, I still give it five stars. Heck, I'd probably give Andrew Sean Greer¿ five stars on his looks alone. Now, that that's out of the way, this is the first book of Greer's that I've read, and his writing is beautiful. If he told the same story over and over, but used different descriptions, I'd read them all. Example: "I found Mrs. Green in the living room, looking out the window at the raindrops, each with a tiny streetlight tucked inside it." This is a time travel story in which shock treatments for depression cause the protagonist to move in and out of 1919, 1941, and 1985. The only thing that would have made this better for me, would be for me to be familiar with the streets of NYC. Then I could have pictured it all. Perhaps a movie will do that for me. Buy this book!
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of family, love and loss. The time travel component was well used to address the question everyone who has lost someone has... what if?
The ending was predictable but what exactly happened to Felix in the 1919 version? I'm guessing Ingrid's dad's people caught up to him? It was a good, sad story.
Beautifully written story of love, loss, and time travel
Depressing whatever lives buska
big time snooze. just another run of the mill "who am I and who do I want to be" book. No insite