Are some people meant to be in our lives, no matter what?
In The Versions of Us, author Laura Barnett poses questions about fate and destiny, love and family, and what “meant to be” really means after all. In this amazingly clever and affecting debut novel, we see three versions of the same lives, and how simple decisions and chance encounters can lead to dramatically different outcomes.
In Version One, Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge as students hurrying across campus. An accidental tire puncture brings them together, and there’s an instant connection. But in Version Two, they don’t meet. Instead, Eva is involved with her boyfriend David, a ridiculously handsome theater student with a promising acting career about to take off. And in Version Three, Eva and Jim do meet and fall in love — but after their brief time together, Eva returns to David for practical reasons, and she and Jim move off into separate orbits.
From here, we follow Eva and Jim through their increasingly complicated lives, together and apart. In one version, they marry and start a life together. In another, they have completely separate lives, but feel drawn together the one time they end up meeting. In another, they spend decades apart, yet never forget the brief love they shared.
Meanwhile, each version has its own expanding universe, with family, friends, lovers, children, careers successful and thwarted, and all the sorts of changes and opportunities that real life involves. Over the years, we see Eva and Jim experience pain, loss, and love; parenthood, betrayal, friendship, and more. The parallels and differences between the three versions are startling — artistic success in one is mirrored by lack of inspiration and progress in another, and a healthy marriage may find its twin in a marriage of distance and polite indifference.
Through it all, Eva and Jim have shining moments. Their characters remain true, wherever their paths take them. Various friends and relatives show up in all versions, although the people and places and meanings may change.
It’s really a remarkable feat that the author has achieved in The Versions of Us. It’s partly a puzzle, sorting out how small decisions result in huge variances between the versions of Eva and Jim’s lives. It’s also a study of the human heart. Eva and Jim are both dedicated to love, family, and responsibility, and try to do the right thing. The little changes early on from one version to the next result in larger disparities in the outcome of their lives, yet certain pieces remain constant no matter where they end up and no matter the version of their lives.
The Versions of Us is a unique approach to storytelling, proceeding in chronological order while showing three versions of the same people’s lives. The cover blurb describes the book as “One Day meets Sliding Doors“, and that’s fairly apt, as far as it goes. The Versions of Us also reminded me of Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid (review), which I also loved.
It seems rare these days to find a love story that covers an entire life — and here, we see the course of love and devotion over three versions of the same lives. Over the span of 60 or so years, we follow Eva and Jim, seeing not just young, giddy first love, but the ups and downs of marriage, the stress of illness and loss on a relationship, the pressures of parenthood, and the impact of aging. This may make the book seem depressing, but it’s not. The overriding sentiment is one of hope and genuine heart. No matter the challenges, there’s a goodness and sense of caring that flow through all three versions of the story. Each version works out quite differently, but the true emotions and connections remain constant.
I did find it challenging, at times, to keep the details straight, as the chapters go from one version to another throughout the book. Names, number, and genders of children are all different from version to version; careers and spouses vary as well. Still, despite having to flip backward a few times to figure out which version of the story includes which details, it’s worth the effort to concentrate and keep track.
Sigh. I loved this book. I’m a romantic at heart, I guess. But here’s why I loved it — the romance isn’t treacly or all shooting stars and rainbows. And really, I suppose I should say that it’s about love — so many versions of love — rather than romance. It’s about love throughout a lifetime, and how it changes and grows and sometimes fades, but always leaves a mark. It’s about how our choices define our lives in so many big and small ways. And it’s about how the important people in our lives are so vital to us that it seems unimaginable to have a version of life without them.
Between the emotions, the terrific storytelling, and the unusual approach to the narrative, The Versions of Us is one of the most special reads I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in quite a while. Don’t miss it.
Publication note: The Versions of Us was published in the UK last year, and was just released (with a shiny new cover) in the US this month.
The details (US edition):
Title: The Versions of Us
Author: Laura Barnett
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction