, this achingly lovely novel examines the power of nostalgia and longing and hope. When we first meet Greta Wells, she lives in 1985 Greenwich Village and is mightily depressed by the death of her beloved gay twin brother from an unnamed disease that is clearly AIDS. On the advice of her psychiatrist, she begins shock treatments, which somehow let her travel to her would-have-been life in 1918, and one in 1943. Surrounded by the same people in the garb and custom of the various eras--her dead brother’s lover, a slightly nutty Aunt who made me think of Endora from TV’s Bewitched, and the lover who eventually leaves her in 1985--Greta (and we) come to see that things never really change and that, as they say, Wherever you go, there you are. Deftly and with great heart, Greer shows us that sadness is universal and timeless. But then, so is love. --
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells Playlist
9 Songs that Inspired Andrew Sean Greer
I lived through 1985, but I didn’t live through 1941 or 1918, the other eras of Greta’s life, so I tried to imagine what I would have listened to back then. A mad mix of everything, it turns out—from swing to classical to vaudeville.
1. When Tomorrow Comes by The Eurythmics
1985 was full of pop sounds, but for me I always loved a brokenhearted woman who sang like a robot. Annie Lennox helped me survive adolescence with her lovelorn lyrics and cold cold heart. And yet—so full of hope. If there were a movie of Greta Wells, it would begin with this song about “tomorrow.”
2. Close To Me by The Cure
Almost as good as a robot lady for me was a man falling apart. Being fifteen, putting this into my Walkman, and hearing The Cure breathing into my ear. Shocking. Raw and sad and full of desperate love, just like Greta. Listen to the swinging brass section—echoes of the past.
3. La Vie En Rose by Grace Jones
Grace Jones, the ultimate robot chanteuse. This patient nostalgic remake (she doesn’t sing for two and a half minutes): I picture Greta playing it as she lies in bed and thinks about her life.
4. Chattanooga Choo Choo by The Andrews Sisters
I just had to. 1941. What could better capture the spirit of America on the brink of war? They are really swinging on this one by the two minute mark.
5. Lady in the Dark: The Saga of Jenny by Gertrude Lawrence
It wasn’t all swing swing swing in 1941—there was wit and elegance to the era, including this Kurt Weil number. It pretends to be a moral tale about how a woman should not make up her mind. Of course it really does quite the opposite.
6. Everything Happens to Me by Billie Holiday
Oh Billie. A comical journey through the mishaps of a woman’s life, but Billy Holiday gives it real despair. I imagine this playing in Greta’s kitchen as she smokes a cigarette while the casserole heats in the oven.
7. Darktown Strutter's Ball by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
1918 had a sense of freedom, and this song (disturbingly titled) shows undeniable joy. Picture young women tapping their feet, unlacing their corsets and getting up to dance! Greta’s Aunt Ruth would have played this hit during one of her notorious parties.
8. Firebird Suite: The Infernal Dance by The Budapest Festival Orchestra
Jazz, ragtime, dixieland—music that many Americans didn’t understand. But classical was quite in vogue. This piece was thoroughly modern, and its drama reminds us of the horrors of 1918: war, famine and plague.
9. You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet by Al Jolson
Subtly risqué vaudeville. Jolsen sang like nobody before—people wept and screamed—and he influenced Crosby, Sinatra, Elvis, and every kid on American Idol who croons a note. What better way to end a soundtrack than with a promise of better to come?