I loved S.J. Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep. I read it last summer, by the pool and by the air conditioning, in just a few days. It is a Memento-style thriller that keeps you guessing throughout its infuriating repetitions as its narrator wakes up each day forgetting the last. It has been adapted into a movie starring Nicole Kidman (which I didn’t think was as great as the book).
This translated to my excitement upon landing an advanced copy of Second Life, Watson’s new book out earlier this month. Second Life focuses on Julia, a woman adrift after the murder of her sister.
Julia is happily married to surgeon Hugh, raising son Connor, when she gets the horrible news that her sister has been killed in Paris. The history between Julia and her sister Kate is full of strife, as their childhood wasn’t a happy one. Julia seems haunted by her memories: not only of her relationship with Kate, but also of her own past, in which she struggled with addiction while living as an artist in Berlin.
Seeking answers where the police find none, Julia teams up with Kate’s best friend Anna to explore the dating site which Kate frequented before her death. While investigating her sister’s murder, however, Julia finds herself feeling undeniable chemistry with a stranger in an online relationship. Her stability, her sobriety, everything she thinks she knows–Julia loses these remnants of normalcy as things spin around her. Her identity fractures and she finds solace in a second life separate from her happy home, with deadly results.
For those who are expecting an equivalent follow-up to Before I Go To Sleep, this felt quite different to me. Second Life felt hazier, the headiness was more prominent, even though both novels focus on women confused by the world around them. This is something I’d love to ask S.J. Watson about, in an interview: “Why these books from the perspectives of manipulated women?” I’d love to see him write about a man in the same vulnerable position as either of his two main characters. Other than this similarity however, Second Life moves at a much slower pace than Before I Go To Sleep. The book spent quite a bit of time describing Julia’s emotions; none of the descriptions explained to me some of her behavior.
If you loved the sexy sinister vibe of Apple Tree Yard, however, this book has your name all over it. I never saw its ending coming. The ending made up for some of the slower parts of the story, as I always love a great twist.
What will come next from S.J. Watson? At this point, I consider him one of the modern masters of the plot twist. I’m already eagerly awaiting his next book.