Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us takes us on three roads that diverged one rainy day in Cambridge in 1958. Eva was cycling to class when she swerved to hit a dog and a nail punctured her tire; no, the dog veered away before that happened; but no, it was a rock, not a nail so she only fell, but did not have to fix her tire. From that butterfly, the lives of Eva and Jim, who saw the accident or near miss come together and diverge throughout their lifetime.
In a way, this is a more quotidian version of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, the haunting short story that imagines a big game hunter going 63 million years into the past to shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex that was going to die anyway, but through a careless step, also crushed a butterfly. When he returned to the present, the world was vastly changed. This cycling accident/nonaccident is the butterfly that changes their lives.
“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.”
In one version, Eva and Jim fall in love that very day, marry and raise a family. In the second version, they do not meet that day and only occasionally run into each other throughout their lives, experiencing a frisson of recognition and attachment. In the third version, they meet and fall in love, but not before Eva discovers she is pregnant with the man she was dating before Jim. So, there are three versions, the one in which they love each other, the one in which they don’t love each other, and the one in which they give up each other.
Throughout the novel key events, birthdays, illnesses, family weddings and funerals are experienced in all three versions of their lives and the contrasts are fascinating. My favorite element of the story is when all three versions converge on the same birthday party or other event. I know it is paradoxical that this is what I like best about the story because it is also the story’s greatest weakness. After all, their lives diverge into three different versions with different children, spouses and career trajectories, but the same people show up at her brother’s sixtieth birthday party? Whether Eva lives close to her mother or in another country has no effect on her mother’s health and lifespan? Marriage to different people and living in different countries does not change his habits and his health or lifespan? I know for literary reasons, she chose to limit the ripples of change that unreeled from that “butterfly” in 1958, but there are thousands of butterflies in our lives, not just one. However, if you decide to just let the conceit be what it is and don’t try to unravel its logical problems, it makes for a good and imaginative story.
It would be a better story if the alternating versions were a little longer, so they are not ending shortly after I remember which version I am reading. Each chapter is so short that readers are constantly switching versions and it can get confusing and occasionally, as a result, it loses the thread, which made my interest flag.
I enjoyed The Versions of Us. The prose is often lyrical and emotionally evocative. Barnett does a good job of creating a good sense of place in describing the homes and their environs. You can see them, but you can’t really feel them as the rhythms of their lives are the same from place to place. You do not feel the hustle of New York or London, the relaxed tempo of Italy, the rhythm of Cornwall is indistinguishable from Sussex and London. There are times when I thought it dragged, when it was too easy to put down.
Some might think the theme of this book is a form of “love conquers all” but it does not, there are many things left unconquered by love. Love accepts all, that is more what we learn from The Versions of Us.
I received this book in a Goodreads Giveaway drawing. To learn more about Goodreads Giveaways and to enter yourself, check it out here. This is an Advanced Reading Copy and the book will be released May 3, 2016