The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

TheVersionsofUs_9780544634244_074c0You’ve heard this concept before. A seemingly insignificant detail can dramatically alter the course of a life. What would have happened if you’d had cereal for breakfast instead of a bagel? What if you wore the blue shirt last Tuesday instead of the green one? Chaos theory has been approached in various pop cultural forms over the past few decades, but The Versions of Us tackles the idea in a fresh way.

Whereas films like Sliding Doors present two different fates that hinge on the mundane, and the Donnie Darko approach suggests that love, sacrifice, and identifying the all-important moment can allow you to shape the future you desire, The Versions of Us tracks three possible timelines and takes a realist stance. In each timeline, the characters experience the kind of tradeoffs that most people face at some point. In one version, a character might have the partner they always wanted, but this means suffering bitter professional disappointment. Perhaps another character fulfills their ambitions, but it is at the cost of alienating their children. One version might mean finding happiness early in life to one character but never finding it at all to another, while a different version leads to happy golden years. Some readers may have trouble tracking the timelines, but Barnett is usually careful to overlap key scenes in a way that highlights their differences.

While it sometimes overexplains (how many times must we be told that marijuana was associated with counter-cultural youths in the 1960’s?), and while the dialog is over-dramatic in spots (have you ever exclaimed, “No regrets! Not now, not ever!” as you clutched your lover?), this is a well-structured novel with keen-eyed attention to detail. Moreover, it avoids predictability–a tall task when you’re not just telling a boy-meets-girl story but telling it three different ways. The Versions of Us is a good read for people who enjoy sweeping dramas and romantic characters but are looking for a book that makes you think a bit more and work a little harder than the standard airport novel.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 9780544634244 | May 3, 2016)

Betty Scott

Erstwhile bookseller Betty Scott lives in the Chicago area and has a serious cinema habit. When not reading or watching movies, she writes reviews, poetry, and fiction.