The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

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.
— John Irving

"Elegiac in tone, this tale of time travel, loss and compromise is as precisely engineered as a Swiss watch...ingenious...[Greer] manages the complexities of this temporal round robin with precision and panache."

-- David Leavitt in The New York Times Book Review 

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.
— Julie Orringer
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1985. After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the break up with her long-time lover, Nathan, Greta Wells embarks on a radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her suffocating depression. But the treatment has unexpected effects, and Greta finds herself transported to the lives she might have had if she'd been born in a different era.

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.
— Jayne Anne Phillips

During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and her alternate lives in 1918, as a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, as a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta's three lives are achingly similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.

As her final treatment looms, questions arise. What will happen once each Greta learns how to stay in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to remain in which life?

Magically atmospheric, achingly romantic, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells beautifully imagines "what if" and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.

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.
— Library Journal

"a rumination on the lives we do not end up leading — those impossible lives — where our myriad desires are rearranged in a different order to form new selves." Toronto Star

 

“I was immediately swept up in the pages of Andrew Sean Greer’s dazzling new novel—a love letter to Greenwich Village, in three indelible eras, and to the intricacies of love itself. I’ve rarely read such a moving and convincing portrayal of the complex and irrepressible human heart. Absolutely gorgeous!”

-  Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

"Andrew Sean Greer's emotionally rich, affecting new novel" - Connie Ogle, Miami Herald


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

(Okay I'm the kinda guy who hates these in the book itself, because it takes the reader out of the experience, but you can find some hidden on the copyright page) 

I actually began this novel just after finishing The Confessions of Max Tivoli in 2003I set it in San Francisco, but somehow couldn’t crack the idea of three time periods or how to work it, so I abandoned the idea and began The Story of a Marriage instead.  And indeed, when I picked the idea up again, and wrote a hundred pages, the novel was still set in San Francisco.  It was only during my 2008-9 fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library that I rethought the book entirely and, after nine months of research and an open mind as to the setting, eras, character and plot, decided to set the book exactly where I had been living: near Tenth Street in New York City.

I can not express how grateful I am to the Cullman Center, and to Jean Strouse, for the opportunity to read so deeply into New York History.  I was inspired by old newspapers, photographs, but particularly books and pamphlets such as Luther S Harris’  Around Washington Square, John A. Kouwenhoven’s The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York, Joyce Gold’s From Trout Stream to Bohemia, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s classic Gotham, Terry Miller’s Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way (from which I took the door in the Arch), Silver’s Lost New York, Rider’s New York City 1916, copies of the Village Spectator from 1917, Chapin’s Greenwich Village, 1917, Berlowitz and Beard’s Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture, Cantwell and Wall’s Unearthing Gotham, The Dougherty’s Yorkville website “Live Work Play Out West” at greendougherty.com, the US Navy’s publication Ports of the World: New York from 1942, Condran’s “Changing Patterns of Epidemic Disease in NYC,” “The Dependent Center” by Bayes concerning AIDS in New York, Alice Hudson’s maps and charts of the Village and the tattered remains of a pamphlet by Grandpierre called “The Fascinating History of Fourth Street.”  The library was a treasure trove for a novelist, and I was aided by Carmiel Banansky in finding my way.

Much of this novel, in its various drafts, was written far from my home, and I am grateful to the Macdowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, Beatrice Monti and the Santa Maddalena Foundation, the Aspen Writer’s Foundation and the Cattos for putting me up during long weeks of solitude.  Does one thank one’s mother in these places for doing the same?  Thanks, mom.

Endless gratitude to my agent, Lynn Nesbit, my editor, Lee Boudreaux, and my many readers, including Frances Coady, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Brandon Cleary, Cullen Stanley, Walter Donoghue, but most of all to Daniel Handler, who once sat with me in a bar with a draft on my novel on his right and two gin gimlets on his left and talked me through a revision.  But greatest thanks of all to my husband, David Ross, who is somehow immune to the moods and passions of a writer in the throes of giving birth to a novel.