Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge in 1958 when she swerves on her bike to avoid a dog. That remains the same in each of their lives, but what happens afterwards changes in the three versions of their lives, together and apart, that Barnett tells. Through marriage, divorce, children, affairs, jobs and more, we follow Eva and Jim from that first meeting in 1958 through to the present day - in three different versions.
The Versions of Us is easily described as One Day meets Sliding Doors, but that would be simplifying how intricately plotted and told this novel is. Barnett almost (I have read a very early proof on which there is a tiny bit of work to be done) seamlessly weaves together three stories, connected by major milestones - birthdays, deaths etc - but otherwise completely different. Barnett takes the small things that make a life and uses them to create three rich worlds.
Jim and Eva are recognisably Jim and Eva in each version of the story, but the different paths their lives take in each version of their story change them over the course of their lives, so that Barnett has actually created six characters instead of two. They are loveable, frustrating characters, and I found myself invested deeply in the fates of all three Eva's and all three Jim's. They're the type of characters who you want to be friends with, who you grow to love, and who break your heart multiple times.
The Versions of Us works because it's more than a love story - it's the story of family and friendship, and missed chances and coincidences in all aspects of life. It's about mothers and daughters and fathers, lovers and enemies, and its large cast never feels out of control, and none of the characters ever feel superfluous or there just for the sake of it.
It's hard to believe this is Barnett's debut novel. It's so sophisticated and well put together - I'm completely in awe of how Barnett managed to write not just one story, but three, and make them all work together perfectly. Eva and Jim's love story deserves to be told over and over again, and in The Versions of Us it is - three times, each as moving as the other.
*The Versions of Us is released on June 4, 2015.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This did not affect my review.