Andrew Sean Greer's new novel is a jolt of pure heartbreak

The last time Andrew Sean Greer tackled a protagonist with a unique relationship to time, we got the magical love story Confessions of Max Tivoli, the masterpiece Benjamin Button only wished it was. But his new book The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells substitutes grief for romance, and the results are achingly sad.

Spoilers ahead...

Max Tivoli felt like it was part of a particular moment in literature, along with Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife — a moment when we could take a whimsical strange premise and turn it into something personal and literary. Since then, we've had approximately 1,000 literary apocalypses, from The Road to Zone One, but not nearly as many new Max Tivolis. So the news that Greer has another book with a bendy premise and an ultra-personal storyline is incredibly welcome.

Except that The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is much less sweet and romantic, and much more muted, than Tivoli. To a large extent this is a book, not just about loss but about depression. This is arguably a more mature take on this sort of story than Tivoli or Time Traveler, but it's also a bit less fun — although there are fun surprises aplenty in this book.

In Impossible Lives, Greta has just lost the two most important men in her life. It's 1985, and her gay twin brother Felix has just died of AIDS. Greta is so shut down emotionally after Felix's death, her long-term lover Nathan first cheats on her and then leaves her. The distraught Greta finally agrees to take electro-shock therapy — and finds that it's causing her to be unstuck in time. Sort of.

Every time Greta gets an electro-shock treatment, she changes places with a different version of herself. There are two other Gretas, one living in 1918 and one living in 1941, and they, too, are having electro-shock treatments. What's odd is that Greta doesn't travel through time, exactly — these Gretas are basically her, along with her brother Felix and her lover Nathan and her aunt Ruth, living in the same house in much the same circumstances. Just in different eras.

Both the 1918 and 1941 versions of Greta are married to Nathan, the man that Greta '85 only shacked up with. But neither marriage is perfect — Nathan in 1918 has been off serving as a doctor in World War I, and meanwhile Greta '18 is in love with a dashing young actor. Meanwhile, Greta '41's Nathan is cheating on her, too, and it seems more serious and difficult to cope with than his cheating in 1985.

As for Greta's gay brother Felix, he's alive in both 1918 and 1941, but he's trying his best to pretend to be heterosexual and settle down with a nice girl — which turns out to be as hard as you'd expect. The 1918 Felix is due to marry a senator's daughter, but Greta keeps trying to fix him up with the man he loves in 1985, Alan. The 1941 Felix is already married but sleeping with Alan on the side, until he gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sending a woman from the mid-1980s (probably the last time you could have a heroine who doesn't have cellphones or the internet) careening into 1918 and 1941 obviously allows Greer to comment on social change and gender roles and hot-button issues. It's sort of fascinating how much more like 2013 the world of 1985 is than either of those other time periods. Add to that the fact that 1918 is the very end of World War I, and 1941 is the eve of Pearl Harbor, and you have two very different views of two very different wars.

But really, this book is way more personal than that — the settings inform the character interactions, but the heart of the story is about Greta getting to meet different versions of the people she loves, including the people she's lost. And realizing that heartbreak isn't so easy to get away from.

Andrew Sean Greer's new novel is a jolt of pure heartbreak

And in a lot of ways, this book uses the notion of becoming "unstuck in time" as a pretty blatant metaphor for depression — the thing of "going through the motions" that you would find yourself doing if you woke up in the wrong decade is exactly the same thing that people who are deeply depressed do. You pretend that you are supposed to be here, and that you have a grip and that you know what you're doing. Greer actually makes this metaphor explicit once or twice, but it's always lurking below the surface.

Just the fact that Greta doesn't seem all that startled when she first realizes she's unstuck in time feels like a reflection of depression — well, of course you're lost in time and the multiverse, what else would you be?

And the process of Greta shuttling between different worlds — changing realities every time she gets another shock, is largely about trying to figure out where you belong, and get over your hollow sense of grief. At times, Greer actually talks about grief as an active force, almost a character in the story, as he writes things like:

Grief will go — it always does — but not before it forces us to do these absurd things, and hurt ourselves, and bring on suffering, because 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.

There are so many ways a book like this could have turned to candy. It could have been pure wish-fulfillment — a woman who's sad and bereft gets to visit worlds where she has everything she's lost — or even a kind of romance, as Greta figures out how to get back her lost lover in 1985. But instead, Greer's storytelling is both lush and austere, offering us lots of beauty but remarkably little comfort. The only answer to the kind of "unstuck" feeling that comes from loss is to suffer through it and eventually find yourself again.

But yes, the writing in this book is incredibly lovely, with Greer showing his usual gift for lyrical prose. To wit, one passage, on the day when 1918 Felix is due to marry:

What a beautiful day for a wedding. Morning had awakened like a girl in a tantrum who will wear nothing but her party dress, and an unseasonal warmth spread over things, leaving darkened stains where ice had coated the sidewalks, baffling old ladies who handed their minks to their maids. Gray-coated crowds filed into the MetropolitanTemple, and one could enjoy the variety of ladies' hats and men's top hats, one of which belonged to the famed senator about to lose his daughter. And one young woman, all in lilac silk, standing on the steps, arms crossed, staring up at the church.

Despite coming out in the height of summer, Greta Wells is not a beach read — it's an armchair-by-the-dying-fire read. It's an adventure story that's the opposite of escapism. With immense sweetness and good humor, Greer paints a portrait of mourning and depression that will be instantly recognizable anybody who's been caught in the monumental crush of hopelessness.