In Laura Barnett's first novel, a good idea is cleverly executed. Its protagonists meet as Cambridge University undergraduates in 1958 when, following a minor cycling accident, Jim invites Eva for drinks. Eva accepts, ditches her boyfriend, David, and eventually marries Jim. However, that's only "version one". In "version two", Eva rejects Jim and marries David. Furthermore, in "version three", Eva starts seeing Jim then discovers she's pregnant by David. Confusing? Not for long.
Across half a century, the three versions of her characters' lives unfold, leaving the reader contemplating chance, fate and the paths we too might have taken. Eva and Jim succeed and fail, love and lose, they become parents and some of the novel's subtler qualities concern their children's differing personalities and fortunes.
A novel's success depends in part on its author's ability to sew together narrative strands and, in this, The Versions of Us is a confident debut. Why then does it feel insubstantial? It really comprises three short novels, which each attempt to capture lives in around 150 pages, so events are often skimmed. The same applies to settings because, although Cambridge and London are fairly vivid, Eva and Jim merely scratch the surfaces of Paris, Rome and Cornwall. Their rootlessness makes for a shallow, touristic reading experience.
At times, the title could be "the clichés of us" so predictable are the characters' trajectories. With age, they stop painting or writing, start Facebooking; some get fat, others wither, but most experience a "sense of diminution" as life becomes a cycle of loneliness, illness and funerals. Then there are mistakes that undermine the novel's integrity. When Jim moves to Cornwall to be with Helena, on whose lips he tastes "the soft, salty tang of the sea", they share a house with some fellow painters: "You'll know of the St Ives colony… Hepworth et al? Well, Trelawney House is just down the road, and it isn't at all dissimilar."
It's very dissimilar. "The St Ives colony" is famous because, for a period in the mid-20th-century, its artistic output rivalled that of New York, so suffice to say "Hepworth et al" weren't sharing stew-making rotas like the hippies in Jim's jumped-up commune. Also, Helena drives Jim to St Ives to board the sleeper train to London but you cannot, and never could, catch the sleeper from St Ives. Finally, the scene where Eva dances to the pianist "Dave Brubeck's slinking saxophone" demonstrates that sometimes it really is best to write about what you know.