“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”
Title: The Versions Of Us
Author: Laura Barnett – arts journalist, and theatre critic
Genre: Romantic Fiction
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Seeing as Valentine’s Day is approaching, Laura Barnett’s romantic debut novel The Versions of Us would seemingly be a great one to read. It has been structurally linked to Sliding Doors, the 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and to One Day, the novel by David Nichols. I was therefore slightly sceptical at receiving this book, thinking that it couldn’t compete with these two works.
Despite this trepidation, the book was a joy, following the lives of two characters within three parallel universes. Do not be put off by the blurb, the last line being ‘What if one small decision could change the rest of your life?’ which could lead one to expect a book full of superficial clichés. However, this is not the case, and the book relies on the candid honesty with which it describes relationships and the delicacies of human consciousness.
Three possible lives, all rest on a minor interaction between the protagonists Eva and Jim. It is 1958 in Cambridge when Jim, a handsome law student meets Eva (or near miss) as she cycles frantically to university with her essay on T?S Eliot’s Four Quartets in her satchel. In version one, Eva’s bike goes over a nail and Jim comes to her aid leading to their relationship and eventual marriage. In version two Eva misses the nail and goes on to marry her egotistical boyfriend David, an aspiring actor. Version three has Jim and Eva meeting, but Eva ends up staying with her current boyfriend.
”Many of the same events were described in each separate story, but with minor differences, which added to the general feeling of disarray’’
Structurally these three separate stories became confusing, and it was hard to recall which version was which. Many of the same events were described in each separate story, but with minor differences, which added to the general feeling of disarray. This slowed down the momentum of the plot and made certain parts dull throughout.
”There is emphasis on the importance of timing in each relationship’’
However, the book thrives on its ability to examine the character’s inner struggles, and desires, which ultimately determines whether their relationships are fruitful. There is an emphasis on the importance of timing in each relationship. Its focus is on the relationship between Eva a writer, and Jim an aspiring, or successful painter depending on the version. One particular ending is very upsetting; Jim’s impulsive character renders him reliant on admiration in order to feel good, and this weakness results in his demise into a lonely drunken mess.
It depicts the weaknesses of the human spirit, and vulnerability well, the three different stories enabling Barnett to explore these themes more deeply. Barnett has the skill to describe everyday troubles in a very simple and honest way so it is extremely relatable. She also looks beyond romance to the workings of relationships, and the importance of timing.
”It’s similar to One Day in its vast scope of the character’s lives following them for 60 years, and has the dates of each meeting at the start of each chapter’’
In terms of character development, only Eva seems to fully develop and is recognisable in each story as an extremely likeable, slightly introverted, passionate, and sensitive woman. It’s similar to One Day in its vast scope of the character’s lives following them for 60 years and has the dates of each meeting at the start of each chapter. However, unlike One Day which created extremely vivid, and rich characters, Barnett fails in this aspect. At the end of One Day, there is the feeling that you have lived alongside both characters, and know them intimately, so there is a deep sadness at the end of the book, a feeling however which is not evoked by Barnett’s novel.
The other more minor characters don’t become fully real, even Jim does not seem to be fully formed. His personality doesn’t deepen enough as the book progresses, this is the main shortcoming of the novel; the inability to create fully formed characters. The other minor characters remain undeveloped shadowy figures.
It was an enjoyable book, with candid insights into relationships, and an interesting exploration of happiness and loneliness but it failed to create lasting, memorable characters.
Image courtesy of Antonia Stearn