A woman travels in time to discover the nature of love in ‘Greta Wells’

Greta Wells, the time-traveling protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s emotionally rich, affecting new novel, understands the nature of magic.

“They say there are many worlds,” she explains. “All around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. Each with its own logic, its own physics, moons, and stars. … And in those other worlds, the places you love are there, the people you love are there. . . . So what if you found the door? And what if you had the key? Because everyone knows this: That the impossible happens once to each of us.”

For Greta, the impossible happens at her lowest moment. (“This is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing.”) Reeling with grief over the death of her twin brother, Felix, and abandoned by her long-time lover, Nathan, she decides to try shock therapy for her depression, her sorrow “a deep-sea creature that can never be brought into view.”

When she awakens, she’s no longer in 1985. She’s still Greta, still in New York City, still under the wing of her wise, loyal Aunt Ruth. But time has shifted backward, to 1918. Felix is alive! And Nathan has not had an affair, and he hasn’t left her. “In this world,” she marvels, “he had married me.”

But this 1918 Greta is also suffering some sort of mental anguish, also turning to shock therapy as a last resort. And so another treatment pushes her to 1941. The 1941 Greta — also married but now a mother — uses the treatment to recover from a terrible accident, which propels the original Greta back to 1985. And so she rolls through three different lifetimes, rejoicing in but also stymied by the different turns her future can take. The two other Gretas have become unmoored in time, too, and their actions and desires have repercussions.

Author of the novels The Story of A Marriage and The Path of Minor Planets and the story collection How It Was For Me, Greer has readjusted the boundaries of space and time in his fiction before. In his heartbreaking novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, his narrator ages backward in time, from old man to infant. Like that book, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells evokes the fantastic with precision and an old-fashioned but wonderfully vibrant atmosphere. Greer is an artful, elegant writer — “Morning had awakened like a girl in a tantrum who will wear nothing but her party dress” — who repeats phrases throughout each decade Greta visits, infusing them with new and poignant meanings.

The point of the story is never the particulars of the time travel — which will stop, Greta assumes, as soon as the treatment is complete, presuming she’s not hallucinating. Greer has come up with a unique way to explore questions of identity and destiny that take on universal dimensions. When Greta warns her loved ones, “I’m not who you think I am,” she could be any of us trying to say: There’s more to me than you’re seeing.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a deeply romantic book — Greta tries to negotiate her relationship to her various Nathans while learning that in 1918 she also has an ardent young lover — but Greer upends our conceits about just how great the good old days were. No time is safe. In 1985, Greta has watched the AIDS epidemic claim the lives of her brother and too many other young men. But the Spanish flu, that killer of millions, lurks just off-stage in 1918, and the war that looms in 1941 will take millions more. And in these earlier worlds, Felix’s sunny, exuberant personality has been tamped down, shuttered by society’s demands. There’s always a scourge. There’s always death. Life and happiness are just that precarious.

There is no great, earth-shattering event to be set right here; unlike Ursula in Kate Atkinson’s recent novel Life After Life, Greta is not out to change the course of history. “We think we have a rippling effect on life, and perhaps we do,” Greta muses. “But . . . [n]ot on the big events, the wars, elections, and diseases. How could I have thought so? Such a small person as I was in the world.”

But in Greer’s hands, one small person’s happiness becomes as important, as vital, as any historic event. And so Greta must decide: Does she want to return to her own time? Would she prefer to stay in another, with her son, with her lover, with her brother? Can each Greta find the place she wants and needs to be?

Those questions could be asked of us, too; Greta and her impossible lives are not so unlike our messy, complicated selves. We can be kind or angry or pensive, all those selves wrapped under one skin. We hurt those we love, and sometimes we can save them. “[W]e are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels,” Greta says, a poignant reminder of all that lies within our simple human powers.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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