I loved it
This is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, hands sweeping through time. Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein’s paths cross whilst they are under-graduates at Cambridge. They are drawn to one another and, after Jim has offered to fix the punctured tyre on Eva’s bike, he takes her for a drink. At least, that is what happens in Version One of their story. In Version Two, Eva and Jim barely speak to one another although he does check she is OK when she has to stop her bike suddenly to avoid a dog. And in Version Three of the tale, Jim sees Eva fall from her bike and, having stopped to help her, he falls as well. In love with her. Having been smitten instantly, Jim can’t bear to let her go and so he suggests they go to a pub on Barton Road.
So, there are three beginnings and each is the start of a different version of Jim and Eva’s lives. Apart and together, their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There are intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again, to help readers keep their bearings.
‘The Versions of Us’ is an enchanting exploration of what our lives may have been if we had made different choices, or circumstances hadn’t been quite the same. The characters in the book are not chocolate-box stereotypes though; this is not a fluffy romance. Both Jim and Eva and their various partners and children are realistically flawed, they make both good and bad choices, have regrets and unfulfilled dreams. This debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a really absorbing read, already destined to be a summer hit.
I hated it
There are three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives and their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. Intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again are supposed to help readers keep their bearings. But it was impossible to keep track of the thread of one version, especially once Jim and Eva started having families of their own and, by the later chapters, step-children and grand-children as well. Over 404 pages, by the end I was reading for the sake of it, still trying to piece together in my mind the past lives and context of the characters in the version I was reading. One reviewer said she got so frustrated that she tackled all the Version Ones first, then the Twos and Threes; I wish I’d thought of that!
Whilst there is no doubt that this is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, the framework of the book obscured the enjoyment. I feel as if the narrative suffered as a result of the format, and the author would have been more expansive if she hadn’t been constrained by the novel’s structure. It was difficult to really get under the skin of Eva and Jim as just when you are getting to know them, you skip chapter to another version of their lives.
As well as the confusion trying to keep track of the parallel narratives, the characters themselves lead rather joyless lives. Infidelity seemed to be the norm, relationships floundered, there was sickness, alcoholism, unfulfilment and death. Some more light and laughter wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I can’t make up my mind
Having taken quite some time to finish this book, mainly because at times I found it difficult to follow the versions of Jim and Eva’s lives, I am still unsure what I thought of it. Whilst this debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, there were parts of it where I was concentrating so much upon remembering which version I was in, that my enjoyment of the story was curtailed. It was almost as if I couldn’t relax into the experience!
But the writing itself is insightful and moving. Jim, Eva and their families are not given to extravagant proclamations of emotion, but there is nevertheless a powerful undercurrent in the book which highlights the every-dayness of love. Love which binds together couples, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends. It is not always an exciting, carefree emotion, but more one that forms the bedrock of our lives, if we are fortunate. Barnett expresses these ideas with a great sensitivity as Eva and Jim weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There is some exquisite prose: in Part 2, Version 3 (Sandworms), Eva, trapped in an unhappy marriage, takes to the Suffolk coast with her mother and daughter. The writing was so poignant it made me cry, as it did towards the end of the novel.
‘The Versions of Us‘ is already destined to be a summer hit and I definitely think readers will get the most out of it when they can immerse themselves in Jim and Eva’s various worlds for a reasonable length of time – dipping in and out makes it harder to follow the three versions. It will also be a great book club choice as there is a lot to talk about!