This is one of those books that I’d seen all over Instagram but never thought I’d read. Call me a snob if you wish but I’m always a bit wary of books that have been endorsed by Richard and Judy. I mean they don’t have a great track record of picking out the literary greats. It also just seemed like the sort of romantic-comedy kind of shit that I try and avoid. I don’t wish to insult anyone who loves a piece of chick lit but I can’t put up with the cliches and the idealism that is central to the plot. It’s all very dreamy and not very realistic. Still, when happening upon a Kindle deal I bought the eBook and, later, decided to buy a cheap copy of the audiobook. I guess I still didn’t have any real plans to read/listen to it any time soon but it was comforting to know it was there if I ever needed an easy read. Then, without any warning, I became obsessed with Audible so when I finished Norse Mythology last week I was desperate to start another one. I randomly picked this out of the ones I have mostly because it was the shortest but also because I like having a copy of the book to go alongside it. So I still wasn’t exactly going into this full of anticipation and excitement. I was hardly open-minded but I figured it couldn’t possibly be the worst thing I’d ever read. Especially considering some of the shit I had to read at university.
The multiverse theory creates a, literally, endless supply of narrative possibilities. I mean when you accept that there exists an infinite number of parallel universes then you have so much more room to play with. I am, personally, kept awake at night that, in all probability, there is a least one timeline in which Bradley Cooper is a double Oscar winner. It’s a terrifying thought. It is an idea that has fascinated storytellers for years and Laura Barnett is just the latest to utilise the multiple timeline gimmick for her debut novel. She is essentially pulling a Sliding Doors but, ingeniously, amps up the drama by adding a third timeline for shits and giggles.There’s also more than a hint of One Day in there because why borrow something from one well-known source when you can just keep piling allusions on top of it?
The Versions of Us revolves around the lives of Eva and Jim two students who are both attending Cambridge university in the late 1950s. One afternoon Eva is hurriedly making her way to a tutorial to hand in her essay on TS Eliot. It is this moment that causes her future to split off into, in this case, 3 separate timelines. In the first, her bike gets a puncture and Jim is on hand to fix it for her. The pair fall in love, get married and settle into post-university life. In the second, the bike remains in tact, the pair miss their chance and head towards alternative partners. In the final instalment, the pair fall in love until an unforeseen circumstance forces Eva to let her love go. The novel then splits between the 3 strands as their lives move on and the pair age.
Now, I admit that I found the premise kind interesting in the same way that anyone would. As human beings we can’t help but wonder “what if?” We’re always wondering how different our lives would have been if one tiny little detail had changed. So it seemed like an interesting concept and Laura Barnett does quite well at executing it. She picks key moments in her protagonists lives and shows them from the perspective of each timeline. The perspective swaps between Eva and Jim at every change. Barnett juggles her three strands quite well and keeps fairly good control over whats going on.
However, I found the whole switching around thing a huge faff quite early on. I understand why we need to see things from both Eva and Jim’s perspective but the constant switching of voices and timelines just got supremely irritating. The constant jumping also works against the narrative because, although the short chapters are easy to get through, it doesn’t allow much time to get to know anybody. We see such tiny snippets of the characters’ lives that we get bombarded with information without any real room to breathe. The novel ends up feeling unsettled and kind of shallow. We’re just jumping from one brief moment to the next and not really getting a sense of a full life. At least One Day felt slightly less rushed because it was only dealing with 2 lives and not 6.
I think Barnett’s debut is a very confident one and I didn’t really dislike her writing. What I did dislike was the basic concept, which is a problem. It doesn’t feel substantial and just falls into cliches from the opening page. You can guess the kind of problems that will end up filtering into the lives of both Eva and Jim and guess what trajectory their future will take. I also find that the different timelines are all very simplified. I wish there had been greater differences between them all. It’s all very neat for the structure to have characters die at the same time and in the same way in each version but it doesn’t feel very realistic. I needed more difference between the 3. Also, it really relies too heavily on the concept of soul-mates and destiny for my liking. I’ve never been a big believer of one person having that one person who is perfect for them but, despite not giving us any real reason to explain why, The Versions of Us expects us to believe that no matter what Jim and Eva are destined to love each other in one way or another. It feels kind of childish to me.
I also find myself quibbling at certain historical aspects that don’t seem quite right. Some anachronisms that just didn’t sit well with me. Although this kind of feels beside the point, it’s these little details that make the overall feel of this book sloppy. Still, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the stories and I did find it easy to carry on to the next chapter. Although, this could have more to do with the short chapter lengths. I do have to say, after reading a GoodReads review moaning about the ending, that I liked the way the stories all ended abruptly. There shouldn’t be any real ending because that’s not life. I could have done with more detail and greater attention to detail but The Versions of Us is a good read for what it tries to do. Whether it should have tried it subject to debate but the end result isn’t terrible.