Book Review: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Title: The Versions of Us
Author: Laura Barnett
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Publication Date: 28 May 2015 epub, 31 December 2015 paperback

Twitter: @laura_jbarnett

Rating: 4 out of 5


What if you had said yes . . . ?
Eva and Jim are nineteen, and students at Cambridge, when their paths first cross in 1958. Jim is walking along a lane when a woman approaching him on a bicycle swerves to avoid a dog. What happens next will determine the rest of their lives. We follow three different versions of their future – together, and apart – as their love story takes on different incarnations and twists and turns to the conclusion in the present day.
The Versions of Us is an outstanding debut novel about the choices we make and the different paths that our lives might follow. What if one small decision could change the rest of your life? 


First, I must thank the publisher for providing me with a copy of The Versions of Us in exchange for an honest review and I apologise for the delay in preparing the review.

I should admit that the reason for the delay in reviewing was because I initially started the book and couldn’t really get on with it. I therefore put it to one side to try again at a later date. I’ve learnt from past experience that it’s often my mood that dictates whether or not I enjoy a book, rather than the book itself, so I always like to give a book at least 2 tries before I give up. Anyway, I am very glad that I returned to The Versions of Us in as, once I made it past the first couple of chapters, I found myself engrossed in this unusual tale.
The Versions of Us is a ‘Sliding Doors’ style tale (if you have ever seen that film?). It is a tale of what might have been and how seemingly innocuous choices, missed opportunities or chance encounters can forever alter the course of your life.
The Versions of Us presents three alternative versions of how Eva and Jim’s lives could have worked out. Beginning in 1950’s Cambridge where the protagonists are both students, fate has deemed that their lives will be intertwined in some way and the three alternative realities show how a chance meeting (or not) plays such a pivotal part in setting the direction for the rest of their lives.
As each version gradually unfolds, the author cleverly alternates the chapters between the alternating realities, with the narrative flitting between Eva and Jim in order to enable the reader to see the tale from all sides.
The Versions of Us is an absorbing and unusual tale with enough twists and turns to keep the reader engrossed until the end. Whilst not an overly cheerful tale, the story is paced well and very readable.
The book follows quite a broad timeline, allowing the reader to experience the full scope of a relationship: from the romance and fun in the early days, through the mid-life doubts and then on to the conclusion… the author really takes the reader on a journey through the decades, showing how Eva and Jim’s characters alter over that time.
Eva, one of the protagonists, is a graceful and poised woman. She takes what life throws at her and does her utmost to make the best of all situations. She is a likeable character, albeit with a questionable taste in men. Jim, the other protagonist, appealed to me somewhat less. I felt that he was ultimately quite a selfish person, easily given to his own ruminations.
To me, Eva’s character remained more constant throughout the three versions, whereas I felt that Jim’s character altered more significantly between the three realities. The tale shows us how people can change over the years and how timing can really be instrumental. Take a look at any marriage and consider whether, had the people met 10 years earlier or 10 years later, the outcome would likely be different either for the success of the marriage or in even getting to that stage in the first place! My husband and I have said on numerous occasions that had we met 5 years earlier, chances are that we might not be married now.
The supporting characters are not well-defined and remain two-dimensional throughout the story, yet that did not detract from the book for me. This really is the story of Eva and Jim and the involvement of any other more detailed characters could well have diminished their tale.
The author has a great sense of timing and balance when jumping between the story lines. A little bit of patience is required as I must admit to wanting to skip ahead at time to follow one specific timeline. However the story manages to retain a decent pace, keeping the reader eager to know the outcome of each timeline. Reading about the different timelines does require a certain amount of attention and I did struggle at the beginning when I was dipping into and out of the book for short periods. I found that it was better to read the book in several big chunks in order to keep track of the different strands.
Overall, I can honestly say that I very much enjoyed reading Versions of Us. It is a beautifully written and emotionally involving tale of what might have been; a thought-provoking exploration of the importance of those small and unmemorable moments in time that can completely change the path of our lives. It also serves to reminds us that the alternative may not ultimately be better and that the grass is not always greener – every path will come with its own challenges, joys and sadness.
Versions of Us has left me wondering whether if you could look into a crystal ball and see ‘what might have been’ in your life, would you choose to take that opportunity? I must admit, I don’t think I could bring myself to know the other possibilities or where my path could have changed….
About the Author

Laura Barnett is a writer, journalist and theatre critic. She has been on staff at the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and is now a freelance arts journalist and features writer, working for the Guardian, the Observer and Time Out, as well as several other national newspapers and magazines.

Laura was born in 1982 in south London, where she now lives with her husband. She studied Spanish and Italian at Cambridge University, and newspaper journalism at City University, London. Her first non-fiction book, Advice from the Players – a compendium of advice for actors – is published by Nick Hern Books. Laura has previously published short stories, for which she has won several awards. The Versions of Us is her first novel.


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