The Versions of Us is the first novel by art journalist and theatre critic Laura Barnett. Pegged as ‘Sliding Doors meets One Day’, it tells the story of Jim Taylor and Eva Katz who meet by chance in 1958 while they are students in Cambridge. A bicycle accident brings them together, and from there three different stories unfold, three disparate worlds where they got married in one, initially started off as strangers in another, and fallen in love but circumstances kept them apart in the third. These three narrations are different but have similarities, and there are instances where the plot converge on life occasions, such as birthdays or relatives passing away.
At its heart, The Versions of Us is about the romantic love between Jim and Eva, but it is not all sunshine and daisies. We are taken through their lives, from being students to being grandparents in their seventies. They are pictures of married life, of finding your soulmate, of trying to realise one’s dreams, career envy, the challenges of having children, infidelity, and regrets with lost love. Each version is like real life, with ups and downs, failures and successes. I found all versions to be poignant because of this, and at the end of the novel, I couldn’t help but think how my life would come out as a story when I find myself in the elderly stage, just like Jim and Eva.
The book’s three versions are told concurrently by year. Sometimes one version would not have a narration in one period, and just by the second year after Jim & Eva’s initial meeting, I was already getting forgetful and confused. I spoke to a friend who had picked it up last year when it was newly released, and she related that while she loved the story, she but did not manage to finish it as she was getting really jumbled up with the different versions. Brief glances at a few reviews echoed the same sentiments. In an effort to avoid this before I ot further into the story, I wrote brief summaries of each version with the equivalent month and year as provided by the text.
It worked; I had notes I could refer to if I got lost or mixed up at what was happening in whichever version was in front of me. However, towards the end, I found that pausing to write was disrupting the flow of my reading when all I wanted to was get on with it. And yet, I was afraid I might lose the plot, so I kept at it. Some readers were complaining about this format; one even said that could the author have been trying to be smart, interweaving three versions in such a manner? Could she have written the three different versions separately and then pieced them together?
Quick research on the author would provide the answer to these questions — in an interview1, Barnett clearly states that she wrote the different versions simultaneously, incorporating the differences and similarities in them as she moved the diverse plots along. Her idea had originally been a story told in a trinitarian format, and she had planned and plotted it in that manner. Nonetheless, she also says in another interview that she does not mind how someone decides to read the novel: whether they read it as printed or by reading each version completely before taking in the next one, although she believes that the “fullest, richest reading experience comes from experiencing the three versions, in the way they were written”.
I do highly recommend this book, although I will also give caution regarding the format. You may want to try and employ a similar method like mine, or maybe you would have a better ability at grasping and remembering the different versions. Barnett is a talented and gifted writer, and I would most likely read whatever she comes out with next after this book.
The Versions of Us was published in 2015 in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing. The book comes out on May 3rd 2016 in the US under Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“What would my life have been without you?”
– Laura Barnett, The Versions Of Us
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Have you read this book? How did you find the format of the three concurrent versions? Did you find it difficult or was it not a problem for you? Any tips for those who might be having difficulties with it?