I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Versions Of Us is a thought-provoking, elegantly written debut which takes inspiration from both The Time Traveller’s Wife and One Day, two of my favourite novels of recent years. This clever novel – which has already been snapped up for television – tells the story of Eva and Jim, three different ways.
“A young woman with a broken bicycle. The man she might, so easily, have missed cycling past, not stopping, carrying with him a whole life, a life that might never have been hers to share.”
In 1958, the two Cambridge students almost collide when Eva has to swerve suddenly while riding her bicycle to class. Or, what if Eva doesn’t swerve? Or ignores Jim’s offer for help? This is the entire concept behind the book; as three different versions of events unfold, each revolving around Eva and Jim – either together or separately – at its centre.
I don’t want to go into details about the storyline of this book – firstly, because it would spoil it, and you should read it for yourself. But secondly, because the story feels so vast and all-encompassing, it’s impossible to contain in one review. The writer somehow effortlessly covers not just one lifetime but three alternative ones with all their complexities and ups and downs, and packs it into just over 400 pages without it ever feeling rushed. Admittedly, things do feel a little difficult to keep track of at times – it’s not just their relationship you need to follow, but their varying careers, children and lifestyles – but I think this is to be expected considering the vast ambition of this book. The way Barnett captures a lifetime among her pages; following Eva and Jim from student life into old age; it felt almost surreal and emphasised to me how insignificant and yet conversely meaningful one life can be. This isn’t just a love story, but a life story too.
The characters were realistic and imperfect, but I have to admit they did border a little on irritating at times. In all versions Eva feels very wise, dignified and self-sacrificing, while Jim is artistic and impulsive bordering on downright insensitive and cruel – the situation began to grate a little. I did begin to wonder if the novel was a little skewed towards the woman being the righteous character, and I got so wound up with Jim there were times when I was no longer rooting for the two of them to end up together.
But my small niggles about the characters didn’t matter by the end, as I was still an emotional wreck as I entered the moving final few chapters. What I had realised at that point is that there is no perfect version. This book is posed as asking What if? but the answer I came away with was that it doesn’t matter. There is no perfect life based on making all the right decisions. All lives will be peppered with good and bad, and what life is really about is holding on and making the most of the good times, and not lingering on the negatives; “Because he is old enough now to know happiness for what it is; brief and fleeting, not a state to strive for, to seek to live in, but to catch when it comes, and to hold on to for as long as you can.” A deep, thought-provoking tearjerker which I won’t forget in a hurry and I look forward to re-reading.