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Publisher's Summary

1985: After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the breakup with her longtime 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 different eras.

During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and alternate lives in 1918, where she is a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, which transforms her into a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta's three lives are remarkably 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 remain in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to stay 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.

©2013 Andrew Sean Greer (P)2013 HarperCollinsPublishers

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 12-05-14

Curious

This book is a bit different from the usual types of books I have been reading. The premise is deceptively simple. It is 1985, and Greta Wells, a photographer living in Greenwich Village, has suffered two losses. Her twin brother, Felix died of AIDS and her lover, Nathan, has left her for another woman. She is depressed and goes to see a psychiatrist, who sends her to Dr. Cerletti, an advocate of electroconvulsive therapy.

Instead of treating her depression it causes her to time travel. She wakes up in her own bed but not in her own time. She travel to 1918 then to 1941 and then to 1985. The location and people are the same in each time frame and all three Greta’s undergo ECT therapy.

Some arenas of historical experiences are given short shrift. Only glancing attention is paid to Greta’s material circumstance. Their careers are barely mentioned. A more troubling elision is politics. 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? “The Impossible Lives of Great Wells” imagines “what if” and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.

The novels central questions—how experience changes us, and which relationships are worth sacrificing for. After reading the book I am still not sure if I like this type of story or not. Orlagh Cassidy does a great job narrating the book. It was the narrator that made this story readable for me.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Time Travel via Electroconvulsive Therapy

Romance? Time travel? An author unfamiliar to me? (Romance?!) How did this end up in my library? Unanimous praise for author Andrew Sean Greer. John Updike compared Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli to the stylings of Proust and Nabokov; the NY Times hailed Greer's best-seller Story of a Marriage as an *inspired and lyrical novel.*

Greta Wells (a tip of the hat to H.G.Wells?) is consumed with grief after suffering a double blow: the death, from AIDS, of her beloved twin brother, and the breakup with her longtime boyfriend, caught cheating with a younger woman (that would make it a triple blow). After exhausting every known treatment for her debilitating depression, her doctor suggests a series of electroconvulsive treatments so she *can be the woman she was meant to be.* She awakes from her first treatment in 1918 NY, the second treatment 1941 NY. Her twin brother and her supportive eccentric Aunt are also there living in this time period, as is Nathan, her cheating rat bastard ex. Without giving away any of the life-altering details -- Greta finds herself transported, via shock therapy, to these different times in history, equipped with the knowledge of her modern self, to live an alternate version of her life by trading places with another *Greta*. In each setting there are hardships, politically, socially, and personally: WWI and II, the influenza, the non acceptance of homosexuality, adultery, etc. Each alter-ego is faced with choices and philosophical puzzles -- once a cheater always a cheater? fix the past or arm herself with the memory? It is an intriguing dilemma that Greer adds heft to by posing some universal questions...if you "longed to live in any time but this one" what would it be, "when you were little, was this the person you dreamed of becoming?"

I have no trouble suspending belief, as long as the author doesn't mistake my agreeing to embark on the journey with him as gullability. There's no avoiding questioning if Greer crossed that line by expecting readers to overlook some elephantine flaws. Most glaringly obvious, we travel -- not by magic carpet -- but by the scientific/medical procedure of electroconvulsive therapy ...electroshock therapy in 1918? self administered? what about Greta 2 and Greta 3? I wanted to like this enough that I did overlook those issues, but it still presented some nit-picky problems. Getting into the flow of the story took me a while; several times I almost quit, but quick pacing of the story, good writing, and very good narration encouraged me onward. I admit I had trouble keeping up with the time jumping, a reason time travel doesn't always appeal to me. As a main character, Greta is not fleshed out beyond the onset of her ordeal -- there wasn't much to like or dislike about her. There were times that Greer's portrayal of Greta, his execution of her thoughts and observations, was remarkable; maybe a bit too philosophically waxy for some readers, but exceptional considering Greer's ability to write a convincing female voice.

I could easily straddle this one; fall to the north and say I loved it -- to the left of the fence and say, I didn't hate it... either way, the one certainty is that Greer has a distinctive and beautiful writing style that made this a pleasure to read/listen to. It is much more than a novel just about time travel (and it isn't a romance novel)--it challenges the listener with questions about choices, love, loss, potential, and identity. Even though this was not exactly my cup of tea, there were elements I liked very much, and Greer is an author I am looking forward to reading again. For those readers with a taste for this type of story -- I recommend and won't be surprised if it becomes a new favorite to those of you that enjoy this kind of journey of self discovery.

18 of 22 people found this review helpful

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For Romance and Time Travel Fans

I loved this book, but I know that it has lots of mixed reviews. I think readers who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and Niffenegger’s, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” will have a better chance of liking it than those who did not. The protagonist, Greta, travels back in time to 1918 and 1941 from her life in 1985 through electroshock therapy she receives for depression. She doesn’t really travel back in time though because she is the same age and living in the same apartment with the same people surrounding her in each of these eras, but details of each of Greta’s lives differ. So, she really is visiting alternate dimensions of her lives in 1918 and 1941. The Greta of 1918 and the Greta of 1941 also “travel” due to the electroshock therapy administered to them, but this tended to be unclear for me at times because it wasn’t always explained well. So each of the 3 Greta’s rotate between 1918, 1941 and 1985. We only get to meet 1985 Greta, but we get glimpses of how the other Greta’s live and whether or not they are happy. If you think about this too hard, it doesn’t make sense that this kind of therapy would allow for one to wake up in a different time and life, but it provided the necessary transportation method for Greer to tell Greta’s story. The book is melodramatic and romantic and the narrator, Orlagh Cassidy, portrays this well. Greta is often nostalgic and sentimental about her family and friends in each of her lives and this is what I liked most about her character. I don’t want to reveal too much because I liked being surprised by the twists and turns of the story. Like I said, I loved this book, but I know many others did not. I think this book will mostly appeal to fans of romance and time travel books. I really like Cassidy as a narrator, but I know she is not everyone’s cup of tea, so give the sample audio a listen before making your decision. This book isn’t perfectly executed, but it really tugged at my heartstrings and so I felt it deserved 5 stars.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Prime Time
  • MARSHFIELD, MA, United States
  • 03-27-14

Intricate, but not Complicated - 5 stars EASY!

Another easy 5 stars!! I have read a few this year! What a story (or stories)! I only wish the book was longer, it was relatively short. I would read this entire book again from the point of view of a different Greta, I liked it so much.

Greta sees (and lives) her life in 3 different time periods. 1918, 1941 and 1985. We follow the Greta from 1985. It goes like this: The three Gretas all begin electro-shock therapy for depression when they are 31 years old then proceed to jump between each other's lives. There is a version of all the main players in each life. Each life has positive and negative circumstances that influence the personality and behaviors of all the players, even Greta herself. This was a thought provoking way to have the reader think about nature vs nurture. Would I be the same if I grew up right at the turn of the 20th century? My values and ideals? But, I'm still me, right?

I pondered how the book would end. How can this possibly be wrapped up to satisfy a reader like myself?! Maybe I am the only one, but I did not predict the ending. I am, however, VERY satisfied with the ending and the entire novel. This one will be remembered.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Marcy
  • Fairfield, CT, United States
  • 09-13-13

Just shy of brilliant

This book is a great concept and I think it was just shy of truly brilliant. It reminded me of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and I think fans of that book will also enjoy this book.

The parallels between the three eras were fascinating and while I completely believed the time travel and the different Gretas, I think some things were over-simplified or glossed over in terms of social realities both for women and gay men which causes its conclusion to feel rather weak compared to the whole.

My only other issue with this book was the poor production quality. Throughout much of the book the sound quality came and went and the edits were really obvious. I think they could've done a better job.

Regardless of the minor weaknesses, this book certainly kept me a awake and listening and kept me in my car.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Lynn
  • Orting, WA, United States
  • 04-05-17

intriguing

intriguing story., but kind of hard to follow a couple of times. I also had to slow down tg e speed slightly, since I usually listen before I go to sleep.

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Great

Great characters I really enjoyed the book I like the concept I thought the author did a great job and I would highly recommend this lady that narrated it was quite nice to listen to overall it was a great performances

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What a fun and well written book!

I really enjoyed this novel. I am a psychologist so I am sure the whole concept of traveling in time after ECT treatments was particularly entertaining...but what a great idea! This author did a great job with character development and used the time travel concept in a unique way. It is hard to find a good book about time travel that is creative and innovative since there are so many variations on that theme already out there.

This novel portrayed the different time periods well and reflected how the culture of society impacted the lives of Greta Wells. It is like a historical fiction novel with a twist.

When I was sharing the storyline with my husband, who is a true science fiction lover, he thought this was analogous to a chick flick at the movies. There might be some truth to that.....I think being a female, there was more to connect to with the various lives of Greta Wells. I was actually surprised the author was male. A good book for personal reflection of your own relationships and inspired the listener to examine the simple aspects of relationships. I thought this book was a feel good book and left me with a smile and a chuckle!

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Literary Prose detracted from the characters

What disappointed you about The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells?

Interesting concept but wandering prose took all the energy out of the story and turned the characters lifeless

What was most disappointing about Andrew Sean Greer’s story?

It was unfortunate that this writer chose to let his literary flourishes take over, to the detriment of developing character. The only person that came alive was Ruth. Everyone else seemed flat and uninteresting, especially Greta.

What does Orlagh Cassidy bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

I doubt I would have finished this story without the lovely voice and narration

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Know Yourself, Greta

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, I would and have recommended this book to friends. I bought another copy for a really good friend who also loved it.

What other book might you compare The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells to and why?

I'd compare it to "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" not just because they share the same author but also for seeing a person's life in different times.

What about Orlagh Cassidy’s performance did you like?

Orlagh Cassidy was Greta Wells for me. Great performance without being a show off.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Know yourself, Greta.