There’s really very little room in “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” for anything besides tending to the complications of its rickety structure. Greer seems drawn to exploring how different historical settings create or influence our characters, but these three time periods come to us with no more than postcard details: AIDS in 1985, World War II in 1941, flu in 1918. Placing these historic tragedies on the roulette wheel of Greta’s chronographic parlor game produces the kind of blurring that novels are supposed to resist.
What Greta can’t resist, weirdly, is interfering in her brother’s affairs, no matter where in the century they happen to be. “Surely, there has to be a heaven,” she thinks. “Perhaps it was my job to make one.” More dangerous words were never spoken — given the chance to see him alive again, she prods him to acknowledge his homosexuality, prying him out of the closet like some nosy middle-school guidance counselor. “Don’t be afraid with me,” she pleads. “Be yourself. Please.” Besides the ahistorical creepiness of this plan, Greta’s titillation with her brother’s sexuality throws off the novel’s romantic focus. In all of the time periods, the Gretas are trying to “perfect their lives” by dealing with a man they love. But those various stories of marriage and adultery never generate the passion and energy of her brother’s off-stage trysts, as though the novel were nervous about concentrating on its real interest.