cover image The Versions of Us

The Versions of Us

Laura Barnett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-544-63424-4

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. Eva and Jim first cross paths in 1958, and in “Version One,” aspiring writer Eva’s bike runs over a nail and law student Jim fixes it, with the pair falling instantly in love and marrying. In “Version Two,” Eva’s bike misses the nail, and she marries her actor boyfriend, David. “Version Three” starts similarly to the first version, but this time, Eva leaves Jim when she discovers she’s pregnant with David’s child. The stories and careers variously unfold across 50 years—the “Version Two” Eva and Jim finally meet in 1963 in New York—with parents aging, children growing up and moving on, spouses moving in and out, with Eva’s writing and Jim’s painting flourishing or withering depending on the version. The constants are love and death—and the portraits of Eva that Jim has drawn. In the first version, Eva views the one portrait as a “version of her. His version, or the version she once offered him.” In the second version, a 1977 triptych depicts “three couples. Three lives. Three possible versions,” a reminder of Jim’s declaration that “you were there with me all along.” In the third version, the painting feels like something Jim had long ago forgotten. Barnett’s evocative presentation is a masterly romantic study of love’s choices and consequences, leaving wide open just what constitutes a perfect ending. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand, Union Literary. (May)