Hetty "Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love. As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
I enjoyed this book. It tells the story of two women, one a slave and one the daughter of the household that has slaves but grows up to be an abolitionist/feminist. I thought the characters were compelling, the prose was well written, and the trajectory was really interesting. I felt like the story was weighted a little toward the girls' younger lives--when they were growing up--and that that section of the book flowed best and was most interesting.
As the girls got older (after the main character Sarah gets jilted and becomes the godmother to her little sister), the pace of the story picked up and it seemed like a race to the end. SO much happens during that part of the story--Sarah becomes an active abolitionist, Handful (Hetty) starts to get involved in an uprising, Sarah becomes Presbyterian and finally Quaker, she lives with a Quaker widower and his family, she and her sister start speaking out at rallies and writing pamphlets, she finally helps Handful escape. I wish the book was a little longer so we could get a sense of their lives during that part of the book--it felt rushed. I was interested in Sarah's relationship with Lucretia Mott and the other abolitionists. I was interested in how it was to live with her sister, Nina, again and watch Nina get married.
I didn't realize until we got to that later section of the book that this was loosely based on a true story. Honestly, I'm glad I didn't know b/c I never know how I feel about those kinds of stories. I wish there was more imagination in the second part rather that relying a little more on the historical accuracy.
I liked the afterword where Kidd tells us what was total fiction vs. what was based on some semblance of fact. i can't believe I've never heard of the Grimke sisters before. I'd love to read a Vanity Fair or NYer article on them...
1985. After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the break up with her long-time lover, Nathan, Greta Wells embarks on a radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her suffocating depression. But the treatment has unexpected effects, and Greta finds herself transported to the lives she might have had if she'd been born in a different era.
During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and her alternate lives in 1918, as a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, as a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta's three lives are achingly similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.
As her final treatment looms, questions arise. What will happen once each Greta learns how to stay in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to remain in which life?
Magically atmospheric, achingly romantic, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells beautifully imagines "what if" and wondrously wrestles with the impossibility of what could be.
This was an enjoyable read. The premise was great--that there are three alternate versions of Greta living at different time--WWI, WWII, and the 1980s. The characters recur (Greta, her doctor, her aunt Ruth, her brother Felix and his boyfriend, Greta's husband/boyfriend, and another love interest Leo), but different things happen to them so their personalities are slightly different each time (harder, more loving, etc. different aspects of their personality are amplifies). You travel with the 1980s Greta each time she gets electroshock therapy to a different time, and presumably, the others are doing the same. I love historical fiction, and I think the opportunity to "get it right" is something I'm sure we'd all love to have. I thought the writing was readable, the tone was light (for such a dark subject). The characters weren't super compelling for me, I found the Greta we traveled with to be weirdly obsessed with her brother, her thoughts didn't go deep enough for me, she accepted what was happening a little too easily, but c'est la vie. My favorite character who felt fully dimensional was her aunt Ruth. I wasn't rooting for anyone specifically and didn't get that involved with the characters lives--maybe because we bounced around so much? It was an enjoyable, if not memorable, book for me.