Earlier this year I read and loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Let’s be honest here and admit that the idea of time travel or a do-over appeals to all of us. Life After Life offered us glimpses of the lives that could have been had small things been done differently.
But Ursula herself was never totally aware of what was happening. She was sometimes vaguely aware of a scenario that was familiar in some way but she was never in control of the do-overs.
I just finished reading another time-travel-y novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer. (Can we just take a moment to appreciate the names that Atkinson and Greer chose for their heroines? Ursula and Greta are excellent choices. I’m a name nerd, I can’t help it.)
The time travel in this book is more controlled – Greta doesn’t have a choice but she’s aware of what causes the time shift. After the death of her twin brother and the break-up of her 10 year relationship, Greta is at a bit of a lose end. She decides to pursue electric shock therapy in the hopes that it will reset her brain. When she wakes up after the first treatment, she doesn’t recognize her 1987 life because she’s somehow found herself in 1918. Her brother is alive in this version of her life and her boyfriend is her husband but he’s at war. In the meantime she has met a young man, Leo, and she’s fallen in love with him. This Greta also has electric shock treatments which is how they switched places. Another treatment shoots Greta into 1941. This time she is married and has a son.
Greta is supposed to have something like 20 treatments and she figures out that the other women are following the same schedule. If all goes according to plan, she should end up back in 1987 in the end. In the meantime, each version of Greta seems to be doing her best to improve the life she inhabits at the time. The 1987 Felix that Greta lost was an openly gay man, who died of AIDS. She tries to help the 1918 and 1941 versions of Felix be themselves, thinking that this will make them happier. She tries to break things off with Leo in 1918 so that that Greta and her Nathan will have a chance.
It sounds confusing but you get used to the rhythm of the story very easily. I found that I appreciated the explanation for why the time travel was happening and the effects that it had on modern Greta. She views her own life differently because of her 1918/1941 experiences. She also starts to see their influence in her own life, like when 1941 Greta seems to have made attempts to contact 1987 Nathan after the break-up.
Ultimately, Greta has to make the classic time travel decision: go home to her own life or stay in someone else’s. In this case she wouldn’t just be making the decision for herself – the other Gretas are part of it as well. I’ve always been pretty certain that I’d try and stay in another time. Depends I guess.
I can’t remember ever gravitating towards time travel stories before. Obviously The Time Traveler’s Wife was an exception – let’s not even go there. So many feelings. But if there are more books out there like Life After Life and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, I’m totally up for that.