I recently stayed up Really Late several nights in a row to finish The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. Let me just say, it was worth the extra cups of coffee I needed in the mornings to function properly. I absolutely loved this book.
The Versions of Us tells three separate stories of Eva and Jim, two Cambridge university students who meet in the early 60’s. Based on small decisions each of them made, there are three different ways their love story plays out. Or doesn’t. Eva has crashed her bicycle, and Jim helps her out as he passes. Or he doesn’t. Which sets their life on one trajectory. She accepts his invitation to go to the pub, or she doesn’t. Which starts a different trajectory.
It’s a clever book looking at how the very small decisions we make can alter our lives immeasurably, and it’s also a meditation on how, when you’re really meant to be with someone, the universe will find a way to make that happen, no matter what you do to try to get in the way of it.
The book spans over 60 years of their lives, and each chapter is set during a specific time period of a few years or so. That chapter is then divided into three parts, which follow the line of each of the three stories that are explored. This makes it a bit difficult to follow – different partners and children emerge through the years, and it’s tough to remember as you go along which life version they were from. Part of me thinks it would have been easier to just go through each story individually. But I understand why she did it the way she did. If you had them in separate chunks, it just would have been three different stories. Weaving them together this way shows how each small decision affects a life in real time.
The reviews on Goodreads show that people either loved or loathed this book, largely because of the work it takes to keep up with each story individually. I found it intensely satisfying, and worth the work, perhaps because I’ve often thought about various decisions I’ve made, and how that could have affected the way my life played out. Maybe it’s because I’m a student of history, and so I spend a lot of time looking at at peoples’ lives, and the specific place where their life changed in one way or another.
Henry VIII, for example, became a different person in 1536, as Suzannah Lipscomb outlined in her book. If he hadn’t had a terrible jousting accident which left him forever in chronic pain, with an ulcerating sore on his leg, who knows how his life, and history, might have looked. Maybe we would remember Queen Anne Boleyn as the mother of multiple sons and heirs to the throne, and Elizabeth I would never have defeated the Spanish Armada because there were so many male heirs to take over.
It’s all speculation, but that’s one of the fun things about fiction. You can speculate to your heart’s content, and that’s why I liked this book. It’s sort of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but without the choosing, and with more romance. Which makes it worth drinking extra coffee for.