In one moment, two lives will be changed forever . . . and forever . . . and forever.
The one thing that’s certain is they met on a Cambridge street by chance and felt a connection that would last a lifetime. But as for what happened next . . . They fell wildly in love, or went their separate ways. They kissed, or they thought better of it. They married soon after, or were together for a few weeks before splitting up. They grew distracted and disappointed with their daily lives together, or found solace together only after hard years spent apart.
With The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett has created a world as magical and affecting as those that captivated readers in One Day and Life After Life. It is a tale of possibilities and consequences that rings across the shifting decades, from the fifties, sixties, seventies, and on to the present, showing how even the smallest choices can define the course of our lives.
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. The bluish skin around her eyes is wet, and the coal-smoke catches in her throat.
There is nobody to wave her off—she forbade them from coming, though her mother wept, as she herself is doing now—and yet still she stands on tiptoe to peer over the milling hats and fox furs. Perhaps Anton, tired of their mother’s tears, relented, lifted her down the long flights of stairs in her bath chair, dressed her hands in mittens. But there is no Anton, no Mama. The concourse is crowded with strangers.
Miriam steps onto the train, stands blinking in the dim light of the corridor. A man with a black moustache and a violin case looks from her face to the great swelling dome of her stomach.
‘Where is your husband?’ he asks.
‘In England.’ The man regards her, his head cocked, like a bird’s. Then he leans forward, takes up her suitcase in his free hand. She opens her mouth to protest, but he is already walking ahead.
‘There is a spare seat in my compartment.’
All through the long journey west, they talk. He offers her herring and pickles from a damp paper bag, and Miriam takes them, though she loathes herring, because it is almost a day since she last ate. She never says aloud that there is no husband in England, but he knows. When the train shudders to a halt on the border and the guards order all passengers to disembark, Jakob keeps her close to him as they stand shivering, snowmelt softening the loose soles of her shoes.
‘Your wife?’ the guard says to Jakob as he reaches for her papers.
Jakob nods. Six months later, on a clear, bright day in Margate, the baby sleeping in the plump, upholstered arms of the rabbi’s wife, that is what Miriam becomes.
* * *
It also begins here.
Another woman stands in a garden, among roses, rubbing the small of her back. She wears a long blue painter’s smock, her husband’s. He is painting now, indoors, while she moves her other hand to the great swelling dome of her stomach.
There was a movement, a quickening, but it has passed. A trug, half filled with cut flowers, lies on the ground by her feet. She takes a deep breath, drawing in the crisp apple smell of clipped grass—she hacked at the lawn earlier, in the cool of the morning, with the pruning shears. She must keep busy: she has a horror of staying still, of allowing the blankness to roll over her like a sheet. It is so soft, so comforting. She is afraid she will fall asleep beneath it, and the baby will fall with her.
Vivian bends to retrieve the trug. As she does so, she feels something rip and tear. She stumbles, lets out a cry. Lewis does not hear her: he plays music while he’s working. Chopin mostly, Wagner sometimes, when his colours are taking a darker turn. She is on the ground, the trug upended next to her, roses strewn across the paving, red and pink, their petals crushed and browning, exuding their sickly perfume. The pain comes again and Vivian gasps; then she remembers her neighbour, Mrs Dawes, and calls out her name.
In a moment, Mrs Dawes is grasping Vivian’s shoulders with her capable hands, lifting her to the bench by the door, in the shade. She sends the grocer’s boy, standing fish-mouthed at the front gate, scuttling off to fetch the doctor, while she runs upstairs to find Mr Taylor—such an odd little man, with his pot-belly and snub gnome’s nose: not at all how she’d thought an artist would look. But sweet with it. Charming.
Vivian knows nothing but the waves of pain, the sudden coolness of bed sheets on her skin, the elasticity of minutes and hours, stretching out beyond limit until the doctor says, ‘Your son. Here is your son.’ Then she looks down and sees him, recognises him, winking up at her with an old man’s knowing eyes.
Cambridge, October 1958
Later, Eva will think, If it hadn’t been for that rusty nail, Jim and I would never have met.
The thought will slip into her mind, fully formed, with a force that will snatch her breath. She’ll lie still, watching the light slide around the curtains, considering the precise angle of her tyre on the rutted grass; the nail itself, old and crooked; the small dog, snouting the verge, failing to heed the sound of gear and tyre. She had swerved to miss him, and her tyre had met the rusty nail. How easy—how much more probable—would it have been for none of these things to happen?
But that will be later, when her life before Jim will already seem soundless, drained of colour, as if it had hardly been a life at all. Now, at the moment of impact, there is only a faint tearing sound, and a soft exhalation of air.
‘Damn,’ Eva says. She presses down on the pedals, but her front tyre is jittering like a nervous horse. She brakes, dismounts, kneels to make her diagnosis. The little dog hovers penitently at a distance, barks as if in apology, then scuttles off after its owner—who is, by now, a good deal ahead, a departing figure in a beige trench coat.
There is the nail, lodged above a jagged rip, at least two inches long. Eva presses the lips of the tear and air emerges in a hoarse wheeze. The tyre’s already almost flat: she’ll have to walk the bicycle back to college, and she’s already late for supervision. Professor Farley will assume she hasn’t done her essay on the Four Quartets, when actually it has kept her up for two full nights—it’s in her satchel now, neatly copied, five pages long, excluding footnotes. She is rather proud of it, was looking forward to reading it aloud, watching old Farley from the corner of her eye as he leaned forward, twitching his eyebrows in the way he does when something really interests him.
‘Scheiße,’ Eva says: in a situation of this gravity, only German seems to do.
‘Are you all right there?’
She is still kneeling, the bicycle weighing heavily against her side. She examines the nail, wonders whether it would do more harm than good to take it out. She doesn’t look up.
‘Fine, thanks. It’s just a puncture.’
The passer-by, whoever he is, is silent. She assumes he has walked on, but then his shadow—the silhouette of a man, hatless, reaching into his jacket pocket—begins to shift across the grass towards her. ‘Do let me help. I have a kit here.’
She looks up now. The sun is dipping behind a row of trees—just a few weeks into Michaelmas term and already the days are shortening—and the light is behind him, darkening his face. His shadow, now attached to feet in scuffed brown brogues, appears grossly tall, though the man seems of average height. Pale brown hair, in need of a cut; a Penguin paperback in his free hand. Eva can just make out the title on the spine, Brave New World, and she remembers, quite suddenly, an afternoon—a wintry Sunday; her mother making Vanillekipferl in the kitchen, the sound of her father’s violin drifting up from the music room—when she had lost herself completely in Huxley’s strange, frightening vision of the future.
She lays the bicycle down carefully on its side, gets to her feet. ‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’ve no idea how to use one. The porter’s boy always fixes mine.’
‘I’m sure.’ His tone is light, but he’s frowning, searching the other pocket. ‘I may have spoken too soon, I’m afraid...
#1 UK Bestseller
An Indie Next Pick, May 2016
A Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book 2016: Spring/ Summer
One of the Observer’s New Faces of Fiction
Winner of the Richard and Judy Spring Book Club 2016 (UK)?
"Barnett's enchanting debut imagines three possible lives, three possible love stories—each with its unique joys and sorrows—demonstrating that life has no perfect path."—PEOPLE, "The Best New Books"
“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…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.”—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
"A subtle meditation on the ways people change each other. Although the premise is romantic, Barnett explores romance in a realistic way, including obsession, insecurity, and sacrifice. Jim and Eva bring out the best and worst in each other, and their relationship(s) is a testament to the dark and light sides of romantic love...The choices we make under different circumstances are the real heart of the novel, as well as a sense that all paths are worth traveling."—CHICAGO REVIEW OF BOOKS
"British journalist Barnett’s debut novel imagines the delicious prospect of romantic do-overs, cleverly negotiating the tricky and often dizzying terrain of three versions of first love...Barnett’s evocative presentation is a masterly romantic study of love’s choices and consequences, leaving wide open just what constitutes a perfect ending."—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, starred and boxed review
"Barnett masterfully pulls the reader through these alternating tales. Each option is compelling and believable. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here: Regardless of the paths we choose, the people who are meant to be in our lives will find their way there."—BOOKPAGE
"An intriguing exploration of the many roads not taken."—BOOKLIST
"Fans of the novel One Day and the movie Sliding Doors will want to pick up this debut."—KIRKUS REVIEWS
"A rich, complex, and deeply satisfying novel… One of the most engrossing novels either of us has read in years."—Richard Madeley, THE RICHARD AND JUDY BOOK CLUB
"A triumphant debut… a thoughtful, measured book about the interplay of chance and destiny in our lives."—Elena Seymenliyska, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
"Its very scope is a joy, the technical achievement seamlessly done, and the ending – all the endings – suitably affecting."—Jenny Colgan, THE GUARDIAN
"Well written, stunningly crafted and constantly surprising… An utterly convincing love story about two people destined to be together somehow, no matter what."—Kate Saunders, THE TIMES
"Barnett renders an irresistible concept in sweet, cool prose."—Hephzibah Anderson, THE OBSERVER
"Unique, complex and playful… Barnett suspends our disbelief like a conjuror."—Elizabeth Fremantle, SUNDAY EXPRESS
"An affecting and thought-provoking work, The Versions Of Us will keep you gripped until the tear-jerking conclusion."—Mernie Gilmore, DAILY EXPRESS
"A clever, romantic debut.. Barnett tells three outcomes of the same affair, a simple, effective metaphor for the paths love itself can take you on."—GRAZIA
"Such an exciting and clever novel. It marks the emergence of a major talent in literary fiction."—Viv Groskop, RED
"A deeply moving and emotional story that has the ability to make you evaluate your own life."—STYLIST
‘A captivating whirlwind of a book… Barnett weaves the myriad strains of her characters’ lives into a cohesive and compelling whole.’ (Sarah Gilmartin, IRISH TIMES)
"She is a stylish writer; so much so, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel. Spanning the entire second half of the 20th century and much of the 21st, this book is evocative and atmospheric."—Anne Cunningham, IRISH INDEPENDENT
"Where to begin? With the fluid and effortless prose? The poise and control of the author? The tenderness – but never sentimentality – which permeates the characterization? The cleverness of the plot device? The Versions of Us is both brilliant and astonishingly good."—ELIZABETH BUCHAN
"Truly enthralling… I simply adored this wonderful novel."—JESSIE BURTON, author of The Miniaturist
"I absolutely loved [The Versions of Us]. It’s so elegantly and beautifully written… I was equally enthralled by each of the three versions… A really wonderful book."—ESTHER FREUD
"Three roads diverged in a wood...and you have no idea which one the characters are going to take. It’s “Sliding Doors” meets “One Day” and a lot of ‘what ifs.’" —theSkimm
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