Laura Barnett's novel The Versions of Us is a love story with a twist: it imagines the delicious prospect of romantic do-overs. Barnett picks 10 of her favorite unconventional love stories.
My debut novel, The Versions of Us, is a love story, but not one you’re likely to have read before. In fact, since its U.K. publication last year, I’ve often joked with readers that it’s excellent value for money, since the book contains not one love story, but three.
The novel traces the arc of one couple’s relationship from beginning to end, in three different versions: from their first meeting (or non-meeting) as students in Cambridge in 1958, through marriage (to each other, and other people); professional success and failure; child-rearing; and all the other pleasures and pressures of family life.
When the idea first came to me three years ago, it was so clear in my mind that I was convinced I’d read it before. I hadn’t. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, had been stupid--or bold--enough to weave three versions of two characters’ lives into one novel. But many novels that have taken similarly unconventional approaches to the most conventional of themes--love, and its difficulties and delights--inspired me as I wrote. Here, then, is a selection of ten of these.
I kept this novel on my desk throughout the writing of The Versions of Us. I was--and am--in awe of how Nicholls manages to draw out the will-they-won’t-they romance between stubborn, self-conscious Emma and flawed, selfish Dexter across 20 years, with each chapter set on one particular day in July (my birthday, as it happens). The climax is utterly unexpected, and the restrictive structure never, to my mind, overrules the book’s emotional heart.
Tyler has been my number-one literary idol since my early teens. This novel is unconventional because we get the entire story of a marriage between one Baltimore couple, Maggie and Ira, told in a masterful slippage between the present--when they are travelling to a funeral--and the past. It’s about love as it is actually lived, day to day, year to year, rather than the clichéd, idealised forms of love we’re so often subjected to in fiction.
Haruf is a recent discovery of mine, and I’ve raced through all his novels in quick succession. This, his last book, is quietly, passionately devastating. We watch two elderly, lonely neighbours finding solace in each other, and earning the implacable opprobrium of family and friends. It’s rare to read about late-blossoming romance, and Haruf handles the subject with such sensitivity and tact. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried as hard in reaction to a novel as I did on finishing this.
I was 21 when this twisting, time-shifting love story was first published, and it totally blew my mind. Niffenegger plots the story of a marriage between a woman who, like most of us, occupies just one temporal dimension; and a man who is cursed with the ability to slip in and out of many. The structure could have been impossible to follow, but Niffenegger cleverly fuses the disparate parts together into an absorbing, beautifully emotive book.
5. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
“How is this unconventional?” I hear you cry. Well, for me, it’s not only because Hardy’s novel centres on a heroine--Bathsheba Everdene--who is astonishingly liberated and forthright for her time, but because, like a funhouse mirror, the novel shifts and changes each time you return to it. When I first read it as a teenager, I was, like Bathsheba, wholly attracted to the handsome, feckless Sergeant Troy; but re-reading it as an adult, I was willing her to appreciate Gabriel Oak’s husbandly solidity and kindness from the very first page.
6. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
An anti-love story, if you will: in fact, the most searing, unsparing examination of an unhappy marriage I’ve ever come across. I read it not long before my own wedding, which I wouldn’t recommend--though as a blueprint for how not to handle a marriage, it’s unsurpassed. And, line by line, Yates’s writing is just breath-taking in its precision and shimmering, clear-cut beauty.
7. Important Artifacts and Personal Property From The Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton
I discovered this highly original, unclassifiable novel last year, and devoured it in one afternoon. It’s as much an artwork as a book - a defunct relationship is presented in the form an auction catalogue, told through the accumulated ephemera that swirls around any long-term couple (photographs; letters; bus tickets; toiletries; totemic items of clothing). It’s such a clever idea, and the book becomes, page by page, much more absorbing and emotionally charged than it might sound in the abstract.
Another structurally daring novel that pushes the boundaries of fiction without sacrificing an iota of emotional impact (are you sensing a theme?). Waters examines many forms of love--romantic; familial; love between friends--in the overlapping stories of four characters set before, during and after the London Blitz. And she does so backwards--starting with the narratives’ conclusions, and working, slowly and carefully, back to their tangled beginnings. Just stunning.
I’m actually reading this at the moment, and I’ve chosen it because it’s about a very particular kind of love - the love between sisters, and in this case, twins. I so admire the way Sittenfeld manages to immerse us in the minds of characters that never feel less than wholly real. Here, she weaves an irresistibly involving story about twin sisters with ESP - though it’s the love between them, and the many ways it is tested as they grow and change, that is the novel’s real focus.
It takes a superb writer to build a novel around a character who is, in many ways, deeply unlikeable--and Strout is exactly such a writer. In this glorious work of fiction - as much a collection of linked short stories as a novel--the eponymous Olive is a tricky, cantankerous woman, often given to bouts of bad temper towards her long-suffering pharmacist husband, Henry. But his love for her--and, indeed, hers for him, however strangely it is expressed--is never in doubt, and forms the fulcrum point of a highly unconventional series of love stories set in a Maine coastal town.
It’s the sort of book, like the Hardy, that you can return to again and again, and always find something new to admire and enjoy--much, I suppose, like the best, most selfless and longest-lasting love, whether conventional or otherwise.