First caveat: I LOVE a time travel story...as long as the characters travel mainly to the past. It is almost impossible to ruin a time travel story fo...moreFirst caveat: I LOVE a time travel story...as long as the characters travel mainly to the past. It is almost impossible to ruin a time travel story for me. I am far too obsessed with/interested in the past and the way the world used to look for my own good. I could literally spend days looking at old photographs and poring through 70 year old city directories. (And I DO, people. I honestly do. This is how I spend my five minutes of spare time each week.)
Second caveat: I really really enjoy Andrew Sean Greer. His quiet yet compelling manner of telling a little story about realish seeming people in different eras and milieus just grabs me. He seems to write down the thoughts that go through my head. But he does it in the manner of a gifted writer rather than in the random way that my own little internal stories and day dreams pass through my mind.
So when I learned about THIS book? I got very excited!
And I was not disappointed. Greta Wells lives three impossible lives. All of her lives are lived in the same New York building. In all of her lives she is surrounded by the same primary people: her lover/husband, Nathan; her Auntie Mame-ish Aunt Ruth; and her beloved twin brother, Felix. We first meet Greta and Felix in 1985. This is the height of the AIDS epidemic and the disease has hit Felix and his friends very hard. Felix makes a brief appearance in 1985 and then succumbs to his symptoms. His lover, Alan, is also close to Greta and also has AIDS. Meanwhile, Nathan, who has been with Greta for 10 years, meets another woman, embarks on an affair and eventually leaves Greta. Greta is deeply depressed about her year of acute loss and agrees to electroshock treatment. The treatments are administered once a week and they set her off on a cycle of time travel.
(I know this probably sounds way too implausible...but it works if you enjoy time travel conceits.)
Greta emerges in two other time streams. In 1941 she is married to Nathan, but Ruth has been killed in a car accident. The 1942 Greta was responsible for this accident and is suffering from her own depression due to her guilt and grieving over the loss of Ruth. In 1941 Greta and Nathan have a son, also called Felix. Greta's twin, Felix, is alive in 1942. He is closeted and planning to marry a woman from a prominent family. Alan is Felix's friend and attorney but Greta is certain that both men would like to have something deeper together. The era, however, makes this difficult.
The third Greta lives in 1918. Felix is alive and also lives a closeted life because of his environment. It is much more dangerous to be identified as gay. She is married to Nathan in this time stream as well. As in 1941, Nathan is a military doctor. In 1941, Nathan is preparing for duty. 1918 Nathan is returning from war. 1918 Nathan has also betrayed his Greta with another woman, but they are still together. However, 1985 Greta learns that her WWI era counterpart has a lover of her own in this time stream -- a young man named Leo. This Greta is torn between her lover and her husband and it is causing her own emotional unbalance.
Therefore, all of the Gretas are going through the shock treatments (of their respective eras). They rotate throughout one another's lives attempting to 'fix' each others problems and to return to the life of their choosing with all of the elements in place...A dead brother brought back to life; a marriage put right; a lover regained. Isn't there a way for everyone to live their 'best' life?
When I read a time travel story I am mainly intrigued by what compels the author to explore this theme. The motivation often comes through in the writing as the character is plunked down in an era remote from their own. Often these passages are the most evocative parts of the story -- when the author puts down what must be his/her own ideas about what they would be thinking in this impossible, yet tantalizing, situation. Here is a passage from Greer that I simply loved:
"What was most wonderful about my journeys, I now believe, was that I alone could appreciate the beauty of those worlds. None of the ordinary people in 1918 found the flickering gaslight quaint or beautiful, or saw the old Dutch market houses as anything but eyesores; to them, the world was both falling apart and coming together all too much. In 1941, as well, for those people it was all too modern and too old. The old billboards and funny metal sounds of life, the way the women flounced their skirts, and how men were always removing and replacing their hats, things that are gone forever; it was nothing to them. I was that visitor who comes to a country and finds it charming and ridiculous all at once. Why would anyone wear those hats? Those skirts? And why have we lost the simple decency of saying hello to strangers on the street? But to those who lived in those times, of course, none of it seemed strange. It was ordinary life, with all its troubles, and only when they were jolted off the rails for an instant did they see how odd, how beautiful, everything around them was. Jolted by love or death. They would never consider that it might disappear, or that they might one day miss the quiet Fifth Avenue snowfall that slowed their Model T, or the awful smell of oyster shells and horse manure, or the green el trains that blocked their window view. I was the only one who knew what would be lost."
And then there is the other great ethical plight of the time traveller. When can one interfere with the random caprice of a life and the larger social structure and time period that frames that life?
This passage also got me to thinking the thoughts I like to dwell upon sometimes when I am wool gathering:
"I knew that not all lives are equal, that the time we live in affects the person we are, more than I had ever thought. Some have a harder chance. Some get no chance at all. With great sadness, I saw so many people born in the wrong time to be happy."
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a recommended read for devotees of time travel fiction. The three story lines fold in upon one another neatly and there is a nice balance between the bitter and the sweet. I continue to love this author and cannot wait to see what he has in store next.
This month I have needed a non-demanding and 'lighter' read to take with me to the hospital as I continue on an arduous path with my mom's declining h...moreThis month I have needed a non-demanding and 'lighter' read to take with me to the hospital as I continue on an arduous path with my mom's declining health and heart breaking surgery/complications. This is not an easy time for me to read and evaluate books with much of an objective mind set. Lately I am a distracted reader. Yet, as in all other phases in my life, I turn to reading during these dark days to provide me with some escape from a reality that has become stressful and grim.
Why Stephen King? Well, I am not much of a 'chick lit' or 'beach book' kind of girl. I find suspense and mystery to be relaxing. And Stephen King is an author I have been turning to for page-turning escapism since junior high school. The pulp/retro cover art grabbed me, as did the length. I knew that I could not commit to a magnum opus doorstop sized tome this month. Unlike the last King title I read (11/22/63), Joyland is a slender book.
Joyland was definitely Stephen King in a quieter voice. Some of the trademark Stephen King elements were in place: youngish male protagonist; exceptional yet sad child character; impossible love connection; and the blending of the everyday with the insanely horrible. However, all of it unfurled at a quieter pace somehow. Much of the story centred on the narrator's journey to manhood as he bears the agony of losing his first love while simultaneously tapping into the core of the man he will become while taking a summer off to work as a carny in the Joyland amusement park. Devin's summer unfolds at a gentle pace for such a shortish book. He mourns the loss of his girl while meeting new friends at the park. Joyland brings out the best in Devin and he flourishes there. It seems as if he has a talent for making people happy, despite his own sorrows.
Joyland, however, also carries a dark pall over its garish midway. Years ago a murder was committed in the park's 'dark ride'. A girl's throat was cut and the man who did it was never identified or apprehended. As expected in a Stephen King story, the evil will not stay dormant. Ghostly sightings, a bit of detective work and some horror occur in the second half of the story.
I would not rate this book as highly as some of my favorite King Classics (Salem's Lot, The Shining, It, etc). Nor would I give it the high rating I assigned to 11/22/63 last year. I thought Joyland was an entertaining read and I liked Devin very much. But the book never really 'popped' for me. On the other hand, I am intrigued my a more restrained Stephen King and what he can do with characters and setting. It felt to me like he had fun creating the world of Joyland. I enjoyed the sights and smells and sounds of the park. I remember those small time carnivals of the early 1970s. When I was a really young kid, we used to go to many small town 'festivals' where carnies would arrive for the weekend and set up rides and sno cone machines. They had a certain sticky, sweet and smelly atmosphere that lives on in my mind to this day. It is evident that King is a versatile writer. If he does a few more like this one I will probably pick them up for summer porch reading.(less)