ANDREW SEAN GREER is no stranger to magic. His magic, also, is no stranger to us. In his newest novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer's narrator finds herself inhabiting the women she might have become in earlier eras. On a regular schedule, various Greta Wellses in 1918, 1941, and 1985 undergo shock treatment, and the lightning sends them on a loop through each other's lives.
In Greer's 2004 novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, the protagonist suffers what is called—since the David Fincher adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story—Benjamin Button disease, in which he grows old and physically ages backward. If there were any justice in the literary world, this fictional condition would be named after Max Tivoli.
The Fitzgerald work, of course, predated Max Tivoli. Similarly, Greta Wells is hardly the first novel to explore the parallel lives one might lead in different times. Yet Greer's novels are in a class of their own. What sets Greta Wells apart is its emotional power, driven by Greer's sweeping, swooping prose, which—without seeming to reach—loops the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, and the AIDS crisis of the '80s into its gorgeous swirl.
From the first page, with "a little alley... where the city tilts drunkenly into an 18th century pattern, allowing for such fanciful moments as West Fourth crossing West Eighth and Waverly Place crossing itself," Greer sets a stylistic precedent that skirts fairy-tale territory, but retains a physical, human hold. For Greta knows she's lived a very good story: she knows which episodes matter, what secrets she can keep and for how long, what phrases to repeat until they gain new weight.
The beauty of Greer's prose is the force that keeps this novel moving. Even when Greta's sad ("Grief, that parasite, above all else does not want to die, and only in these terrible moments it creates can it feel itself thrashing back to life") or bitter ("and soon a white-collar prison outside the city, where our cars would know our bodies better than our spouses"), Greta's emotions sing.
If the central mechanism of this novel—its magical impetus—sometimes seems too familiar, if the plotty twists and turns often grate and distract from the powerful philosophical and historical implications, there is always the anchor of a well-turned phrase to keep this book in your hands. On every page, Greer reminds us that he is a masterful storyteller, and that he knows beauty firsthand.