Book Review: Versions of Us - Laura Barnett

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Versions of Us by Laura Barnett follows two characters, Eva and Jim, through three different versions of their lives. Each path branches off of a single moment: Eva riding her bike to lecture. In one version she swerves to miss a tiny dog, gets a flat and is helped out by Jim who offers to help her fix her bike. In another version, Eva misses the dog, Jim, walking by, asks her if she's alright and she carries on to class. In the third version, she gets a flat tire and then spends the rest of the afternoon with Jim at a nearby pub after he offers to buy her a drink. Each version follows them all the way through until the end of their lives. We witness marriages, births, deaths, loves, betrayals, successes and failures. Throughout each version, the only constant remains the magnetic draw between Eva and Jim.

This book is an expansive, sweeping story of love, but not the shiny, pretty love being packaged up and sold as an ideal. It's a messy, worn, often heartbreaking love that results after years of weathering storms together, getting annoyed and bored with one another, sharing life's good times, but also the hardest, ugly emotions. The depiction of love reminded me a bit of watching a fire burn down. At first it's well defined, tall and dramatic flames. It's unmistakable, it's simplistic, it's black and white. But as time goes on, the definition of those flames starts to blur and the fire isn't as mesmerizing as it once was. The wood starts blending in with the coals and it's not as easy to delineate the parts. Happiness might now have tinges of sadness to it. By the end, we're left with glowing embers. It's all a bit of a mess, with dark and light woven completely throughout. It's tamed, but it's warm. It's nothing like it started out as, but it's shaped everything about how it ended up.

Reading this book provided almost as many varied emotions as the story so accurately illustrated. I loved the story, but it was sometimes hard to keep going with. I took quite awhile to read this because while I think the author did an amazing job of painting a realistic life picture, sometimes it was a lot to bear. Living life in real time can often be hard enough to process the good and bad as they come, but reading about a life compressed down, with all those emotions condensed, packed quite a wallop. I kept taking several days off from reading this so I'd have time to digest, which then ended up making it a bit hard to remember what was happening in which storyline. I also sorted it out in the end, but the first chapter or so after returning to the book was always slow goings. By the time I got to the last 75 or so pages however, I tore through the book. It was one of those books where your partner has long since fallen asleep and you're up several hours too late reading in bed by the light of a single lamp. When I finished, I just cried. It was the best way I could process both the beauty and the sadness of the lives lived throughout the book.

So much of this book is about the journey of the different versions not plot twists or where you end up so I don't want to say too much about what happens. However, having given this a few days to settle in my head, I do think I got to know Jim's personality, his inner struggles and aspirations quite a bit better than Eva's. She wasn't a flat character by any means, but she seemed a bit more closed off, whereas Jim bore it all, so to speak. I would have liked to see more of Eva's vulnerability, but throughout most of the book she seemed to just be getting on with it. Perhaps that's part of the point however -- she had mouths to feed at the end of the day. In all, I think the characters in this book are some of the most rounded, complicated and human characters I've read in awhile.

I think this is a lovely book. It's high quality writing on a grand scale and it's just a little bit different than your normal novel. Grab a cozy blanket and put a fire on in the fireplace, because this is a perfect poignant autumn read.

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