The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells pic
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by
Andrew Sean Greer

Rating:

What would you do if you discovered yourself living different lives during different times? What if, in these other lives, you had the chance to fix things, to point others towards happiness, or to alter your own life? What if you found a chance at happiness in one of these alternate lives, a chance that has been lost in your present life? These are some of the central questions Greta Wells must contemplate in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

I loved this very original story by Andrew Sean Greer, in which Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941. In her modern world, Greta has just lost her adult twin brother to AIDS. Her long-time lover, Nathan, has left her and Greta is impossibly lost. Feeling hopeless, she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy and is surprised to find herself living both similar and different lives in these earlier times. During this twelve-week period, Greta receives twenty-five procedures and cycles between her three “impossible” lives. Early on, Greta wonders, “So maybe I can perfect their lives. And maybe, while I’m missing, they can perfect mine.”

These lives all take place in her Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village and Greta finds things that are both familiar and unknown about her circumstances. In her 1918 life, she has been unfaithful, in 1941 she has been betrayed and in both she watches as her brother Felix struggles to find a way to reconcile his homosexuality with what the times expect of him. Greta sees the relief and euphoria of one war ending and understands how only she can know that another war is coming.

Greta describes the 1918 soldiers returning from war and celebrating the future:

These same soldiers would come home, never speaking of what they’d seen, and marry those girls and raise children, and they would send those children off to war again. With Germany, again. We would be here again, in this parlor singing this same song. I stood there, in wonder, at the madness of it all.

While this is technically a story about time travel with well-placed historical references that really take you there, it’s mostly a story of love, understanding, forgiveness and second chances. I think the author does a great job showing Greta’s desire to get it right with Nathan, in at least one of her lives. She works hard, too, to create happiness for Felix by steering him towards the right people and encouraging him to acknowledge his homosexuality to her. In addition, Greer shows Felix’s personal pain of not fitting in, but desperately trying to do the right thing. These double-layered efforts fit just right with the twin relationship between Greta and Felix.

I’ve read some reviews complaining that the story is confusing. Its complexity did not bother me and, once you get the characters and their lives down, the story drives itself. I felt invested in all three time periods.

Here are some of the things I liked about the book:

  • Greta’s relationship with Nathan in 1941. Her capacity for forgiveness in this time period is very moving.
  • Learning about Patchin Place in New York. It’s fun to imagine what this part of Greenwich Village looked like then and Google Maps shows a great picture of the gated entrance.
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place now
Patchin Place now
  • The secret key and room in the Washington Square arch.
  • Greer’s use of three different clocks at the beginning of each chapter, with different times on each face. I can’t figure out what the different times mean, but I like thinking about them anyway.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“There almost has to be a heaven, so there can be a place where all things meet.”

“We are so much more than we assume.”

“What is a perfect world except for the one that needs you?”

“Mark your hour on earth.”

“I understood nothing, Felix. But it was a great show.”

A little bit of fantasy, a little bit of history, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of hope and understanding – this is a great read!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

tell the wolves picTell the Wolves I’m Home
by
Carol Rifka Brunt

Rating:

When it comes to friendship and love, what is okay, what is wrong?  How can two unlikely friends take care of each other, and what are the boundaries?  These are some of the central questions in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, an unusual story about a family that is coping with the death of Finn Weiss, a famous artist and gay man, brother and uncle to the family, who has died of AIDS.  The story is set in Westchester, New York, in 1986, during a time when little was known about the disease and much was feared.  June Weiss, Finn’s niece, is fourteen, a solitary girl who is trying to make sense of her own place in the world and of her close relationship to Finn.  This strong bond has all but ruined June’s relationship with her older sister Greta, a smart and talented high school senior, headed for college in just a few months.

The family dynamic is a major theme in this well-written story, especially between June and Greta.  The plot revolves around Finn’s final painting, a portrait of June and Greta and the family’s reaction to it.  When June meets Finn’s lover, Toby, a man who has been kept a secret from her while Finn was alive, the two develop a strange and unconventional, highly-charged relationship.

I enjoyed a great deal about this book.  It’s well-structured and moves at an engaging pace.  It’s a complicated story and it’s sometimes sweet.  There’s a little bit of mystery and magical feel to it.  But there are also many things that make it uncomfortable, strange and creepy.  June seems to be uncontrollably propelled, or maybe pulled into a friendship with Toby, but either way, the risks are enormous and her decisions are hard to understand.

The best part of the story is the painting and how it becomes a way for the characters to communicate.  I also think the relationship between sisters is the best part of the dynamic and I hoped for a reconnection between the two.  I had trouble understanding the rest of the relationships, but it’s definitely a book that makes you think, and that’s why I enjoyed it.

Thanks to my friend Dawn for recommending Tell the Wolves I’m Home and for being my guest blogger.  Click here to read her review.  If you’re a book clubber, it’s a good choice.  Some of you will love it and some of you will not, all-in-all a great discussion book!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Preview: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

tell the wolves pic

What’s up next?

Next I’ll be reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt.  You may remember that my friend Dawn (http://mmapron.com) recently reviewed this book for me as a guest on my blog (https://bvitelli2002.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/guest-blog-by-dawn-a-review-of-tell-the-wolves-im-home/).  Now I’m looking forward to reading it myself!

Here is a brief bio I found on Brunt’s website.

Carol Rifka Brunt
Carol Rifka Brunt

Carol Rifka Brunt grew up in the suburbs of New York City and now lives with her family in the southwest of England. She has published short fiction and non-fiction in The North American Review and The Sun. Her first novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, was named a best book of the year by Wall Street Journal, O Magazine, Kirkus, BookPage and Amazon, was a Barnes and Noble Discover pick, Target club pick, Costco Pennie’s pick, an ALA Alex Award winner and has sold in 16 countries. She is currently trying very hard to forget all of that, pretend there is no pressure to live up to anything, and concentrate on writing her second novel.

You can find additional information about Brunt at:  http://www.carolrifkabrunt.com/

Thanks for visiting!

Guest Blog by Dawn: A review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolves picTell the Wolves I’m Home

by Carol Rifka Brunt

Rating:  *****

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is a book about love, loss and family during the early onset of the AIDS epidemic in 1987. June Elbus is the fourteen-year-old narrator who adores her uncle and godfather, Finn Weiss. Finn, in addition to being June’s favorite person in the world, is a world-renowned painter who is dying of AIDS. His last great painting is a portrait of June and her sister Greta, a project designed to allow his family to spend time together before his death.

Greta is a talented singer who used to be very close with her younger sister June, but recently their relationship has become fractured and strained. At first, Greta appears to be the stereotypical bratty and one-dimensional Golden Child character adored by all, but we eventually learn that Greta has demons of her own. Having a sister and understanding the sometimes love-hate nature of sisterly relationships, I felt their relationship rang true. I know not everyone agrees with this. Consider yourself lucky if you have a sister and cannot relate to Greta and June in any way.

Their portrait, Finn’s last known work, is considered very valuable once it has been discovered. What transpires next is central to the plot, so I won’t go into details. But I will say that everyone manages to communicate through this painting, and the concept of negative space is introduced. Negative space is the space between the subjects, and a key element of good artistic composition. Sometimes the most interesting things are revealed in the space in between.

After Finn’s death, June befriends his long-time partner, Toby, who has been kept a secret from June. Toby and Finn’s life is was rich and full, but not something Finn could share with his beloved niece due to the anti-gay mindset of the times. Negative space, so to speak. Having grown up in the 1980s, it’s really jarring to recall those days when people understood so little about HIV and AIDS, and when it meant an automatic death sentence. It is a reminder of how far our society has come, both in science and in tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community.

The relationship between Toby and June evolves from something initially fraught with mistrust and jealousy (June’s) to a real understanding, mutual respect and love. It is a beautiful relationship and just what Finn had hoped would happen after his death.

    That’s the secret. If you always make sure you’re exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won’t care if you die tomorrow. — Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home

June is a shy, insightful, wise-beyond-her-years narrator you will not soon forget.  This is a sweet, sad, yet ultimately hopeful coming-of-age debut novel that will appeal to readers of all ages. I look forward to reading more from Carol Rifka Brunt.

I want to thank my friend Dawn for such a thoughtful review.  Be sure to check out her blog, Mom Mom’s Apron, Of food and life:  http://mmapron.com

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