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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells: A Novel by [Greer, Andrew Sean]
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3.9 out of 5 stars 339 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, July 2013: Like many books about time travel, including Stephen King’s 11/23/64 and the author’s own The Confessions of Max Tivoli, 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. --Sara Nelson

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells Playlist

Andrew Sean Greer

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?

From Booklist

Greer (The Confessions of Max Tivoli, 2004, and The Story of a Marriage, 2008) cleverly reinvents that always popular staple: the time-travel novel. The story opens in 1985 as a severely depressed Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy in order to cope with the death of her beloved twin brother and a devastating personal betrayal by her long-term significant other. With each treatment, she is whisked back and forth through three different lives, landing in 1918, 1941, or 1985. As the eras change, she carries her circle of family and friends with her, and the setting—New York’s charming West Village—remains a paradoxically evolving constant. Despite the fact that she is essentially the same person in every life, her choices, dictated as much by time and place as by personality and free will, are radically dissimilar. Philosophically intriguing as well as gorgeously imagined and executed, this novel will catch fire with the same audience that propelled Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) to the top of the best-seller list. --Margaret Flanagan

Product Details

  • File Size: 1319 KB
  • Print Length: 307 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; Reprint edition (June 25, 2013)
  • Publication Date: June 25, 2013
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B009NF6ZMU
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,237 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.

This fascinating and thought-provoking novel starts off in the year 1985 when we meet the main cast of characters. The first is Greta Wells, who narrates the story. She and her brother Felix have just turned 31 years old but it is not a happy time for her - Felix is dying from AIDS and his partner Alan has come down with the disease as well. We also meet Greta's eccentric (and wonderful) Aunt Ruth, who lives in the same building as Greta and we meet Nathan, Greta's live-in partner of 10 years.

When Felix dies near the start of the story and when her relationship with Nathan sours, Greta goes into a deep depression. Medication does not seem to help and her doctor recommends another type of treatment.

In a way that is explained later in the story, Greta is transported back to two different time periods - October of 1918 and October of 1941. Both are pivotal times in history; a war is just ending and another is about to begin. In other ways the three time periods seem to mirror each other; there is the Spanish flu in 1918 comparable to the AIDS epidemic of 1985. As Greta goes back and forth in time and body, she tries to "correct" and improve her own situation and the lives of those that are near and dear to her. But her efforts have surprising and incredibly profound and intriguing consequences.

I don't want to give away more than what I've just said because there are certain revelations and discoveries that Greta makes when she is transported in time and I think it would benefit the reader (as it did me) to not know in advance what those are.

I started reading this novel earlier tonight and I just finished it a few minutes ago. I could not put it down.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Andrew Sean Greer's latest novel, "The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells", tracks the "lives" of the eponymous, Greta, as she messily "time travels" among 1919, 1941 and 1985. I chose this novel because I really love time-travel stories, but this one I found difficult to follow, and although I'm willing to totally "suspend disbelief" for a good yarn, the set up for Greta is a perversion of the Many-worlds Interpretation which is an actual theory. (From Wikipedia: "Before many-worlds, reality had always been viewed as a single unfolding history. Many-worlds, however, views reality as a many-branched tree, wherein every possible quantum outcome is realized.") In Greta, we don't have a tree from which her lives branch, we have our entire cast of characters living in various time-frames. It's a quibble, but it distracted me from the story Greer was attempting to tell.

Greer is trying to paint a picture of three times in history where many people are dying from a plague (Spanish Flu/AIDS) or from war, and to show how each character is influenced and changed by the time in which he or she resides. By moving the 1985 Greta around in time, he intends to illuminate us on the nature of love and on the social and cultural restrictions on women.

I'm giving this novel a solid 3-stars (didn't love it/didn't hate it), because although I found it derivative, and difficult to follow at times, I read it on a long plane flight and it was entertaining enough to distract me from the myriad discomforts that make up modern air travel.

I felt that Kate Atkinson, in her latest novel, "Life After Life", did a better job with the many-worlds interpretation because her protagonist's birth was the "tree" that branched out as the seminal occurrence from which all the branches/possible lives grew. Other wonderful "time travel" or "many-world" novels are: "Replay" by Ken Grimwood, and "11/22/63" by Stephen King.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Typically, I only write reviews for books I really love. I am not a book reviewer; this is not my job, and I think there's enough negativity out in the world without my adding to it just because I didn't care for a book. I'd so much rather enthuse about the books that have really inspired, taught, and moved me; I leave it to others to write about what worked for them in the books that left me cold.

So it is with some surprise that I find myself feeling compelled to write a negative review of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a book that at the moment appears to be nearly universally appreciated. I finished the book several days ago, and the ways in which it troubled me continue to nag. It's not just that I didn't care for the book -- although that's part of it -- but I found it unsettling in a way that goes beyond simply not enjoying a novel. So, here goes:

In 1985, Greta Wells is suffering. Her beloved twin brother has just died, one of many young men lost in the early years of the plague known as AIDS, and her under-appreciated lover leaves her. She briefly tries therapy, but is somewhat inexplicably, and very quickly, shunted off to a practitioner of Electroconvulsive Therapy (a treatment even this novel acknowledges is used only as a kind of last resort, but let's not let the difference between grieving after devastating loss and major depression get in the way of the plot's catalyst). This is not just any ECT: it's a time travel-inducing shock treatment, and it just so happens that in two other branches of the multiverse, two other Gretas are also receiving their own treatments, as well, freeing them up to play musical chairs in time. So far, so good.

My problem is not with the conceit of this novel.
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