One day in October 1958 in Cambridge, Eva Edelstein falls off her bike and meets Jim Taylor. They fall in love and marry. Another day in October 1958 in Cambridge, Eva cycles past Jim. She goes onto marry her actor boyfriend David, who will go on to be a Hollywood actor. And on yet another day in October 1958 in Cambridge, Eva falls off her bike, meeting Jim, but circumstances drive them apart, and she marries David, who will again go on to be a Hollywood actor.
So far, so Sliding Doors. Now, I’m very fond of the film Sliding Doors, in which one woman lives two different lives depending on whether or not she catches a train, but one of the ‘endings’ is so hopeless and unsatisfying – something that has always bugged me. The Versions of Us follows Eva and Jim’s entire lives, from the various children they have with each other, or other partners, to three ultimately touching and satisfying conclusions. None of the lives are perfect – even in the ‘happily ever after’ strand, cracks and resentment start to show, as Jim struggles to accept Eva’s success as a writer, whilst his own art goes unappreciated. In another, Eva’s many manuscripts initially come to nothing, whilst Jim is a celebrated artist. Many key events remain the same – funerals of various parents and mutual friends’ birthdays – so we witness Eva and Jim attending these events with or without each other. Their lives intertwine , whether they are together or not but there is no obviously ‘preferable’ life.
Each ‘version of us’ is fully and convincingly fleshed out. Touching moments of joy, from the birth of Eva and Jim’s first child are beautifully captured, as are heartbreak and grief. The deaths of their parents as the two main characters age are particularly affecting (although if I would insist on reading the book on the way home from a funeral, I think those scenes would naturally hit me harder.) The supporting cast is fantastic – from Miriam and Jakob, Eva’s devoted Jewish mother and stepfather who fled the Nazis in 1938 – to one of Eva’s husbands David – the self-obsessed actor who Jakob astutely observes will likely never love her as much as he loves himself . Despite the sheer volume of them, they’re all fleshed out and distinct – I was particularly impressed at how the various children managed not to merge into one.
Though The Versions of Us has been compared to One Day, I think Life After Life is a better comparison. *HUGE One Day spoiler alert* I was never able to see Emma’s death as anything but gratuitous but in The Versions of Us, each life, and each plot twist feels perfectly real. I adored this wonderful, heartwarming and touching debut and hope it reaches the wide audience it thoroughly deserves.
Also, part of it (a third of it, a version, if you will) is set in Gipsy Hill. #SouthLondonShoutout. Just sayin’.
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is out now, published by Orion Books.