Autumn in Cambridge, 1958, and a little dog is about have a big impact on Eva’s life. Innocently cycling to meet her boyfriend David, the dog variously causes her to fall off, get a puncture, or cycle on as planned. Jim happens to be walking by and offers help in two of the versions. Neither of their lives will ever be quite the same again. What follows is three versions of their lives, spanning almost sixty years, with all the ups and downs that a life contains.
Eva is an aspiring author, Jim a painter, and David an actor. We see their varying degrees of success and the impact it has on their relationships. How creatively successful can you be while committing fully to a relationship? Can both parties be permitted the freedom to achieve simultaneously, or must one always be sacrificed for the elevation of the other? These are questions that are explored in the book alongside a certain sense of fate - no matter the circumstances some things never change.
Jim’s father was an artist and Jim lives in the shadow of his fame. He cheated on Jim’s mother, Vivian, and there’s also a sense of trying to go against the grain of his genes. Unfortunately, many versions of their lives and relationships include infidelity. This is a book that shows the realities of long-term relationships - the mundanity and expectations, as well as the more dramatic moments. If you’re looking for a happy, rose tinted romance this may not be the one for you.
Eva is fairly consistent in all versions. Accomplished and caring, she does at times allow her partner’s desires and ambition to overshadow her own. She proves herself loyal and with a strong moral compass time and again, but is not without her moments of weakness. David, on the other hand, rarely comes off well. Self-obsessed and vain, he fulfils his father-in-law’s fear that he will never love Eva as much as he loves himself. He has his moments however, and is not a spiteful character. He is destined to be a secondary character to the love between Eva and Jim. Their lives seem to be drawn together, even when they know each other only distantly, there is a fascination there. There is a sense that they are meant to be together, whatever flaws the relationship might reveal in them.
The story's structure is interesting, and although it has the potential to be somewhat confusing it is largely possibly to keep track of each of the versions (although this becomes more difficult as relationships break down and start up, the same characters populating each version). There are little moments that stay the same in each, but with drastically different consequences in the varying circumstances. This felt like a nice touch, and highlights the many moments where our lives have the opportunity to diverge.
Of the side characters, Vivian is the one that is most memorable. With a mental illness that weighs on Jim’s conscience, and a strong desire for him to avoid following in his father’s footsteps, she is a strong, controlling force in his life. Eva’s parents are kind and attentive, and as a result blend more easily into the background. The passing of the older generation is sensitively and powerfully handled.
The scale of the novel means that there’s bound to be an age or circumstance that particularly resonates with readers of all ages. Whether reflective of your life or not, it is quite unputdownable and will leave you constantly wanting to read on. There are moments of great joy and others of bitter heartbreak. Characters will betray those most devoted to them and sabotage their own happiness, yet at the centre is the constant connection between Eva and Jim. At times frustratingly oblivious or stubborn, you root for them through thick and thin. A book that will make you laugh and cry, absolutely worth your time.