Last month I read two books in the entire month. By the end of the first week in July I had already finished four! That’s what happens when I read fiction instead of factual novels 🙂 Really, the amount of books read attests to three things: 1) a quieter, more relaxing week 2) travelling by myself 3) some pretty fantastic books The first one of these was The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. Oh I loved this book. I read it snuggled under the duvet, well past bedtime, on the spin bike distracting me from some hard intervals, in a crowded square in Valencia, surrounded by noise. I couldn’t put it down and I felt just so emotional about it. It was an intensely personal novel for me, set as it was mainly in Cambridge and south London. I couldn’t help identifying with the characters and then going further, thinking about my own life and my own future – what I want from life and what I don’t want! Also interesting was that the novel has been portrayed very differently by different reviewers, each finding different things interesting, or not mentioning at all something that was a seminal point to another reviewer. Obviously it was a personal read for other readers as well, and we all come to it differently, and take different things away from it. It’s a novel about love primarily, and what shapes us as people. Why do our lives follow the thread that they do? If one thing was different, would everything turn out differently? The novel follows three separate strands of the lives of Eva and Jim, three separate ways in which their lives could have run after a chance encounter in Cambridge, where they are both at university. In the first, they meet and fall in love. In the second, they catch sight of each other but never actually meet, and in the third, they meet and fall in love but within a few months everything goes wrong. Each of the three versions of their lives unfolds slowly, with the novel alternating in different chapters from one version to another – for example, a 60th birthday party seen in three different circumstances. It’s partially like One Day, in that it follows two individuals who meet and fall in love at university, but it is much more in depth, cleverer, with better writing. It has that same feeling of longing and being slightly lost that permeates the “end-of-university, beginning-of-life” experience. And it continues well past those heady days of the early-20s, to be about infidelity, about marriage, of bitterness, resentment and abandoned dreams:
“Of course he loves Eva: after betraying her, he had felt washed through with love, overflowing”
It also explores the questions of family that linger at the back of all of our minds – what traits of our parents have we inherited? And which of those, good and bad, will we pass onto our own children? How do we bring up those children, and what do we do if it all goes wrong?
I really enjoyed following the whole life of these characters – this is no Disney film where everything ends with the wedding, but portrays a whole life and the development of the characters within it. Eva especially was a really likeable character in her three different incarnations
It is occasionally hard to keep the three separate strands of the story straight – did that moment happen a few years ago in that story, or in this one? But perhaps that is slightly the point, that no matter the different paths we might take, our essence as a person is the same and so the three strands intermingle.
Either way, I ended the novel sobbing, sat in a square in Valencia, surrounded by groups of young people enjoying their Friday night out. Despite the fact that none of the things that happen in the novel have happened to me yet, and I hope many of the things that happened never will, the places (Dulwich, Gyspy Hill – the places of my childhood, and then Cambridge) and the feelings of love at the beginning of the book were so familiar to me, that I fully identified with the characters the whole way through. It made me nostalgic for the start of my relationship with James, those heady days in Cambridge of love and studying, of ending long days at the library in bed with a bottle of wine, of the freedom of finally finishing exams and not knowing what comes next. It made me think of our future, of having a whole life together and how wonderful that will be (hoping it will be happier and easier than the lives of those in the novel – the eternal optimist) and of knowing that eventually it all has to end, one way or another. Hence the tears!