Week 7: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells – by Andrew Sean Greer

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It’s 1985 New York and Greta Wells has watched her dear brother, Felix die of AIDS and has been left by her long term partner, Nathan. Lonely and devastated by the loss of both men, she becomes depressed. She is prescribed electroconvulsive therapy, assured by her doctor that the side effects will be mild and over a course of treatments, she will be returned to herself. 

Instead, she wakes up in 1918 and discovers that with each treatment she is transported to the life of another Greta – and through the course of her treatments, she travels between 1918, 1942 and 1985. Each Greta in habits a life that is familiar, yet different and each Greta is broken. In 1918, she is married to an unfaithful Nathan who is away at war and has been having an affair with a young man, Leo. Felix is still alive and struggling in a society that does not tolerate his homosexuality. In 1942, she is recuperating from an accident that killed her aunt Ruth, but still has Nathan and Felix. As she travels between each world, she learns that each Greta is also travelling between lives and comes to understand each Greta, and herself a little more. Ultimately, towards the end, she must decide which life she wants to live in and which Greta will be happiest in which era.

I had high hopes for the this novel and found the whole notion of time travel through parallel lives really interesting. However, I don’t think Greer quite pulls it off – while the idea of switching between each life works as a plot device, it also didn’t work quite seamlessly enough for me (maybe I am pedantic but it annoyed me that in one world she has a broken arm and yet doesn’t travel with it but in 1918, she gets pregnant and seemingly does travel with that condition). I guess I couldn’t quite get my head around it enough to believe it. I also don’t feel that I ever got to know Greta or any of the other versions of her well enough to actually like her and sympathise with her. I just felt a bit removed from it all, which isn’t helped by some of the prose which is, to use a technical term, quite waffly! To me it felt like this book could have done with a bit of a tighter edit! That said, the book did raise some interesting themes – war plays a role in each world and it is interesting to think that those involved in WW1 would never have imagined that in just another 20 years or so, they’d be at war again. It’s also interesting to see the parallels between each era – in 1918 there is an influenza epidemic killing masses, whereas in 1985 it’s an AIDS epidemic. Overall I’d say this was an ambitious book, that in my opinion didn’t quite pull it off – what a shame!

I ran with the war theme this week and decided to make a 1940s chocolate cake – which suited me well as I am on pre-payday rations! I found a recipe on the BBC history site of all places, for an eggless chocolate cake…

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This is possibly the easiest cake ever to make! It took me about five minutes to make the mixture – I only baked this for 45mins, not the full 90mins suggested by the recipe – not sure what it would have been like after all that time!! The cake came out alright really, it’s quite dense, a bit like a brownie but considering it doesn’t really use much by way of ingredients, it’s pretty good. Not the more delicious cake you’ll ever eat, but not the worst either!Image

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