This gorgeous novel is not only a fascinating journey through collective lives but also a showcase for the sheer breathtaking beauty of Greer’s writing. In the fall of 1985, Greta Wells longs for happiness but seems always to be cursed with sorrow and death. Felix, her freckle-faced twin brother, has just died from AIDS, and her partner, Nathan, has taken on a lover. Amid the sobs of a broken heart and alone with Nathan, Greta ensconces herself in her apartment, Patchin Place.
Greta’s only consolation comes from Alan, Felix’s silver-haired lover, who stayed with him “until the end,” and from Aunt Ruth, whose plush pink flush face wears away at Greta’s depression. In an attempt to counteract her sadness, Greta undergoes a series of electroshock therapies which tumble her into the past and into a slow, soft awakening that begins in 1918. “Like pulling one’s way out of web” to the distant sound of ringing bells, Greta must acknowledge a life born in another time.
From memories that spring fully-fleshed from the past, there’s a moment of recognition: her beloved Nathan is off at war, while at the gates of Patchin Place stands Leo, another lover, a fairy-tale man. Forced to reconcile the aching loneliness of a childhood home that echoes with the loss of Felix, the therapies plunge Greta into 1941 and into a world of “other choices and other chances.” Antique taxis “honk in the streets” and “brass buttoned policemen” echo a Manhattan of another time. Here Greta finds that not only has Nathan never left her; he has actually married her.
Greer renders Greta’s voice in kaleidoscopic detail: a brother charged as a sex criminal, the beginnings of an affair, a child born and a flawed Nathan who, still hopelessly desirable, has suddenly disappeared. Greer moves us between Greta’s three time periods as mystery after mystery darts around corners, things are restored then taken away, and the whole horrible, beautiful magic act of Greta’s life unfolds. Old lives become new lives where “life could be anywhere but here and now.” In 1918, Greta retreats to “a strange mirror” of the conversation she has with another Aunt Ruth in another world. Through Ruth, “the twinkling eye of someone who knows all your secrets” fills Greta with a sense of sorrow and lingering pain.
Greta’s collateral lives are not insignificant, and Greer’s writing—which is sublimely atmospheric with lush descriptions of everything about the world that his heroine experiences—makes it all supportable. Years pass in a tale of chronic pain begun with Felix’s death in 1985 and onto the earlier sections, where the perils of his homosexuality become a pivotal part of Greta‘s life lessons. In each of the three periods, the author reveals bit by bit the surprising details that comprise the core of Felix and Greta’s existence, but it is Felix and his innate need for love and acceptance that is portrayed in an entirely new and fresh way.
As this is Greta’s life told in triplicate, we experience every detail from her perspective, every revelation and anxious moment into whatever the future (and the past) may hold. Because it is Greer, all is cast in a unique glow, exposing the vast landscape of love and of heartbreak. From a kind Nathan in 1941, whose passionate mistakes cannot disguise his loyalty, to a cold Nathan, who in 1918 holds a mirror to his jealous rage, Greer exposes the working apparatus of the human heart, part of the randomness of life and the choices demanded by love.