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Andrew Sean Greer
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Ecco / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-062-21378-5
Publication Date: 06-25-2013
292 Pages; $26.99
Date Reviewed: 07-28-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction  Fantasy

It's all too easy to get stuck in your own life. Each day has its demands, and as we hurry through the hours, mired in each minute, stepping back and getting perspective on just why you are doing what you are doing becomes impossible. But if we take the time to sit down and read, it can give our minds the respite required to see the sense, or nonsense, of our actions.

It takes a certain kind of book to make this happen, and Andrew Sean Greer's novel 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' is perhaps the perfect incarnation of such a book. The premise is simple, the execution is sparse and elegant, the pace both life-like and lively. Each abounds with sentences you'll want to underline or read aloud. Greer crafts three worlds you'll be able to inhabit after you finish the book, world from within which you'll get a new slant on your own harried life.

We meet Greta Wells living in New York in 1985. Her twin brother, who is gay, has contracted AIDS. Her lover has left her and her depression is such that her therapist recommends electro-shock therapy. She might have some hallucinations afterwards, she's told. But when she wakes up in New York of 1918, with the same set of friends and relatives in slightly different circumstances, it's no dream. After attending an ECT session in her new life, she wakes up in 1941; and after her session in 1941, she's back in 1985. Greer quickly immerses the reader in this fairy tale-like plot with precise language and a small cast of carefully crafted characters. As events echo and parallel one another across the three lives, the plot is tense but utterly life-like.

From the first sentence, Greer's prose is elegant and memorable but clear and unpretentious. He creates the tone of a modern fairy tale for adults by filling his novel with quotable lines and set pieces. The bit of magic he uses to create the three lives is dashed off with just amount of nonchalance. In any given scene, we feel as if we are in a grounded reality, but Greer offers only as many period details as required to help the reader travel in time along with Greta. Greta tells her story in the first person, and Greer makes us feel as if we are itting in the living room with her listening to her tale told by the fire.

Though the story is set in three different times, Greer keeps his character list short; there are five main players. But while the core cast is small, the variations in each period allow him to play with the characters and spin them out in slightly to greatly different lives, especially Greta herself. In a fascinating bit of characterization in absentia, Greta is left to discover how her own self is different in these disparate lives. The rest of the cast is generally likable, and even when they're not, they're great fun to be around. 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' gives readers fifteen characters for the price of five.

The triple timeline also works to turn the stuff of everyday life into fuel for a page-turning thriller that quite happily involves no mayhem, but more than little joy and love. This is a novel where the differences between the lives of each Greta and the way each iteration of Greta goes about changing the lives of the other Gretas is a means for Greer to quite naturally crank up the tension. It's a blast to rocket through this novel, breathlessly waiting to find out how it all wraps up; and Greer provides an eminently satisfying finish.

While 'The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells' offers Greta a look at the potentials in her own lives, Greer's novel has just the right feel of fable and the perfect proportion of parable to enable the reader to pull back as well. We get to be immersed in the book but as well to enjoy it as a book. It will help you get unstuck from your own life. In a sense, it is a book you will finish quite quickly — but a book you might never really finish with.

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