The premise of Laura Barnett’s novel is inventive, engaging and poignant – a moment in time that can create different paths in life, different versions of the people we will become. Eva and Jim meet – or do not meet – on a Cambridge road in 1958, and this chance encounter has the power to transform their lives immeasurably.
It’s a notion that has wide and relatable appeal: what if we hadn’t met that one person? What if the very fabric of our lives could have been altered by a last-minute swerve? Everyone has at least one ‘what if’ moment and Barnett successfully harnesses this wistfulness to create a meaningful, likeable narrative. I really enjoyed the beginning of the novel – as I’ll outline in a later blog post, a well-written and carefully executed romance will always appeal to me – and the first few chapters sketch out an evocative, vaguely glamorous mid-twentieth century world that never fails to capture my imagination. I also genuinely couldn’t predict how Eva and Jim’s story would end; and when The Versions of Us came to a close, I was sincerely saddened by Barnett’s skilled evocation of a long-lived mutual life that had spanned so many decades before inevitably fading.
But despite my liking of the novel, there was just something that seemed a bit ‘off’, a bit superficial. The Versions of Us has been repeatedly compared to David Nicholls’ One Day but it’s a contrast that more clearly reveals the faults of the former. It’s sometimes difficult to follow each version – to remember the varying levels of professional and personal success experienced by the protagonists in the different versions, in addition to the different casts that populate their lives. Although Barnett mostly does a good job in reminding the reader of the changes, by the end of the novel it’s understandably a bit confusing, and detracts from the narrative’s potential power. And at times the latter part of the novel has the tendency to dip into a string of achievements and children, making the narrative feel somewhat unwieldy, and occasionally some of the characters’ decisions appear incongruous and slightly unbelievable – particularly in Version One, which delves into the most annoying of cliches.
That being said, the way in which Barnett juxtaposes the same scenes across the three versions (and yields different results each time, illustrating the endless possibilities inherent in life) is undeniably clever. Similarly, I admire Barnett’s decision to allow all three versions to stand as ‘real’: all are valid, and who’s to say which one is better? A book I’d still recommend as an intriguing holiday read, but one whose final product ultimately distracts from the novel’s initial promise.