Every love affair has an origin story, and the one that launches The Versions of Us is as picturesque as any: A pretty coed, late to class one blustery October afternoon, swerves to avoid the little terrier skittering into her path, and a chivalrous young man comes to the rescue. Her tire is flat, punctured by a rusty nail; their chemistry, electric and instantaneous, is not.
But because Laura Barnett’s debut (already a bestselling phenomenon in her native U.K.) isn’t called just Us, you might have already guessed what comes next: Versions is about not only what happens to the pair from there—marriage, children, the manifold issues and incidents of intertwined lives—but two other entirely different destinies, played out in tandem over the next half century.
In all three narratives, Eva and Jim meet on a Cambridge lane that autumn day in 1958 and immediately feel a jolt of connection; only in the first one does that lead them quickly and easily to the altar. In the second, she pedals onward from their brief encounter with her bike wheel and her loyalty to her current boyfriend—a handsome self-absorbed actor—intact, and Jim’s presence in her life becomes something more elusive and intermittent. In the third, they also fall in love, but Eva makes a choice that sets them each off on yet another course.
Versions is hardly the first fictional multiverse; its choose-your-own-adventure trope has plenty of precedent in other novels (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World), movies (Sliding Doors, Source Code, Run Lola Run), and TV shows (The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Doctor Who). There’s no trace of sci-fi here, though, or some grander world-altering plan. Barnett, a former arts journalist, seems less interested in mind-bendy contingencies and butterfly effects than in simply forking her story and following it down the roads not taken. Still, it does take some work to track the disparate threads to their ends. Exes and offspring come and go or disappear entirely; Jim becomes a thwarted teacher, a decent lawyer, a famous painter. Calm, thoughtful Eva is easier to grasp; she mothers, mostly, and writes, more and then less and then more again.
What-ifs could hurt a book as much as hook it: If anything can happen, nothing really matters. Versions is smart enough to know that the fantasy of infinite possibility is thrilling—but not nearly as much as the reality of true human connection. B+
OPENING LINES “This is how it begins. A woman stands on a station platform, a suitcase in her right hand, in her left a yellow handkerchief, with which she is dabbing at her face.”