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Time-travel premise doesn't quite pan out

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This romantic fantasy novel tells the story of a woman plunged into a dark depression and her attempts to repair her life.

American author Andrew Sean Greer, best known for his 2004 novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, tries to deliver a deep exploration of love, loss and choice through the trope of time travel. But, unfortunately, he falls short.

The story is narrated from the point of view of its title character, Greta, a 31-year-old woman in Manhattan in 1985. Things could be better for her. Her gay twin brother, Felix, commits suicide after contracting AIDS and her boyfriend, Nathan, leaves her.

Emotionally at sea, she elects to undergo a form of shock treatment in the hopes of resetting her brain and her life. But instead, she is transported into the past.

In a bit of bad luck, Greer's premise is a kind of reverse of Kate Atkinson's current bestseller, Life After Life. Greta finds herself in the place of two alternate Gretas living in 1918 and 1941, and quickly becomes obsessed with improving not just her own life but all three.

Greer imagines three separate universes for Greta and uses the cyclical nature of history to create worlds that echo each other. He depicts Manhattan beautifully and does a remarkable job portraying the fear and hollowness ringing in the streets during a time of war and illness.

Greta's grief over the loss of Felix is palpable. (Greer, not coincidentally, is a twin himself.) Similarly, Greta's distancing from Nathan, his subsequent straying, and their separation is entirely understandable and believable.

However, once Greer moves on from this initial setup, things quickly become convoluted. Greta is thrown into two alternate worlds that she knows nothing about, and Greer rotates her through them on a regular but brief schedule.

Time passes in Greta's absence, leaving her and the reader to piece together the storyline as bits are recounted by third parties.

Greer seems to have inserted the character of Greta's aunt for the sole purpose of explaining what we've all missed when Greta time travels.

Her three worlds become so hazy and undefined that her new relationships in the alternate timelines are never fully formed or explored.

Greta's relationship with the Felix in her past is the most baffling. Greta disdains his inability to be open and accepting of his homosexuality, despite the obvious social pressures surrounding them in 1918 and 1941. She continually focuses on his flaws and how he is lesser than the original, and yet we are to believe their bond is more important than all else.

In Greta's alternate lives, the author fails to create the same sympathetic and believable characters he established in the original timeline. He fails to provide enough background for his alternate characters and does not sufficiently develop their relationships with Greta.

This void leaves much of the story feeling unsatisfactory. It also often appears that Greer has looked for a convenient, if inexplicable, resolution.

What could have been a romantic and thought-provoking look at personal choice, and how it drastically impacts Greta's destiny, instead becomes an implausible and limited story.

Karen McKay is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 A1

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