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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

3.4 15
by Andrew Sean Greer

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From the critically acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller The Confessions of Max Tivoli comes The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the “other lives” she might have lived.

After the death of her beloved twin brother and the abandonment of her


From the critically acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller The Confessions of Max Tivoli comes The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the “other lives” she might have lived.

After the death of her beloved twin brother and the abandonment of her long-time lover, Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy. Over the course of the treatment, Greta finds herself repeatedly sent to 1918, 1941, and back to the present. Whisked from the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn carriages of the West Village to a martini-fueled lunch at the Oak Room, in these other worlds, Greta finds her brother alive and well—though fearfully masking his true personality. And her former lover is now her devoted husband…but will he be unfaithful to her in this life as well? Greta Wells is fascinated by her alter egos: in 1941, she is a devoted mother; in 1918, she is a bohemian adulteress.

In this spellbinding novel by Andrew Sean Greer, each reality has its own losses, its own rewards; each extracts a different price. Which life will she choose as she wrestles with the unpredictability of love and the consequences of even her most carefully considered choices?

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - David Leavitt
Elegiac in tone, this tale of time travel, loss and compromise is as precisely engineered as a Swiss watch…To his immense credit, Greer…manages the complexities of this temporal round robin with precision and panache.
Publishers Weekly
In Greer’s time-traveling fourth novel (following The Story of a Marriage), the eponymous Greta skips between three different eras, and her life is intertwined with the same two characters (and other incarnations of herself) in each. Greta Wells, living in New York City in 1985, is devastated by her twin brother Felix’s death from AIDS and the end of her long-term relationship with Nathan. To treat her crippling depression, she pursues electroconvulsive therapy, which begins a cycle of magical time travel. In 1941, Felix is alive and Nathan is her husband; and in 1918, Nathan is away at war and Felix, though still homosexual, is deeply closeted. As the Greta of 1985 explores these timelines, the versions of herself from 1918 and 1941 also travel to each other’s eras. No timeline is perfect; each offers losses and compensations. Felix’s stories provide an especially moving exploration of the limited choices available to gay people throughout history. The Gretas have surprisingly little solidarity, intruding into each other’s lives without warning or permission. While Greer too often skimps on the period details that can give time travel stories a sense of reality, the novel’s central questions—how does experience change us, and which relationships are worth sacrificing for—work to bridge its chronological jumps. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
A woman inhabits three different selves in a time-travel novel from an author long fascinated by the manipulation of time (The Confessions of Max Tivoli, 2004, etc.). Young men are dying like flies. It's 1985, and AIDS is rampant, especially in Greenwich Village, where Greta Wells is mourning the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix. Not only that: Her longtime lover, Nathan, has left her for a younger woman. "Any time but this one" is what Greta yearns for. Her prayer is answered, sort of, when she begins a course of electroconvulsive procedures and finds herself, an earlier Greta, in 1918. Husband Nathan is away at war (about to end); on the homefront, Greta has an admirer, Leo, a virginal actor, while brother Felix, deep in the closet, is set to marry a senator's daughter. After her next procedure, Greta is in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here again, she and Nathan are married, with a small son; she's recovering from a car accident. Felix, no longer in denial, is having a secret affair with Alan (by 1985, they'll be all the way out); when he's busted in a gay bar, his wife will divorce him. Another day, another procedure, another time shift. Greta is just a bird of passage in these other eras, which are quite as turbulent as her own: on the national scale, war and pestilence (the 1918 flu epidemic); on the domestic scale, infidelities (both earlier Nathans were cheating on her, while Greta's one night with Leo led to her pregnancy). Greta is monitoring two emotional upheavals, her own and those of Felix; all this leads to more confusion than enlightenment. Punches are pulled (Greta fails to confront the 1941 Nathan over his adultery), and melodrama blooms. Was all the back and forth worth it when all it yields is a small epiphany? The Confessions of Max Tivoli was more inventive and more satisfying.
Colum McCann
“Andy Sean Greer writes with an intelligent joy that encompasses a truly kaleidoscopic vision, reminding me of the work of Peter Carey and David Mitchell. This novel is beautifully sewn together.”
Jayne Anne Phillips
“Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a luminous inquiry into time itself, and Greta Wells, in her transit between three lives, is his most assured creation. What a lovely novel: stirring, inclusive, forgiving, and extraordinarily hopeful.”
Julie Orringer
“No one tells the secrets of the human heart more bravely or eloquently than Andrew Sean Greer. He has been called our Proust, our Nabokov, but with this novel he transcends all comparison. This is a genius-stroke of a book. Read it and weep.”
John Irving
“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.”
Michael Chabon
“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.”
“Philosophically intriguing as well as gorgeously imagined and executed, this novel will catch fire with the same audience that propelled The Time Traveler’s Wife to the top of the bestseller list.”
New York Times Book Review
“Elegiac in tone, this tale of time travel, loss and comprimise is as precisely engineered as a Swiss watch. [Greer] manages the complexities of this temporal round robin with precision and panache…a generous novel…”
Real Simple
“This novel is a guilty pleasure of sorts for anyone who has ever wondered, What if? We’re taught not to dwell on paths not taken, but this book weaves a tale about the magical possibility of what could have been.”
The Daily Beast
“…The magical conceit here is well earned and imagined rather than gimmicky, and Greer writes with an acute sensivity for the wonderment taht underpins the human experience.”
Time Out New York
“…elegant and wistful…”
Miami Herald
“…emotionally rich…Greer is an artful, elegant writer…The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a deeply romantic book.”
Library Journal
Greer's (The Story of a Marriage; The Confessions of Max Tivoli) imaginative treatment of love and relationships shines again in his third novel. It is 1985 when Greta is faced with a debilitating depression after the death of her twin brother, Felix, and shortly thereafter the end of her marriage. She seeks electroconvulsive treatment, a succession of 25 procedures, for her condition. The doctor assures her it will not change her, only alleviate her depression. But with each treatment, a door is opened to a different life, either in 1918, 1941, or 1985. Although Greta keeps her feelings intact for her beloved brother, her former husband, Nathan, and her Aunt Ruth, the relationships change and mutate in each era she experiences. As her time travel escalates outsides the boundaries of her understanding and logic, Greta is faced with bracing herself for the unknown. VERDICT Fans of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife will delight in following the thought process of time traveling while maintaining a hold on a singular identity. [See Prepub Alert, 1/6/13.]—Susan Carr, Edwardsville P.L., IL

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

By Andrew Greer

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Andrew Greer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-221378-5

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
brother, Felix.
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.”
“The cowgirl.”
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
another one.”
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

John Irving

“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.”

Michael Chabon

“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.

Brief Biography

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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