Advanced Reader Copy received from the publisher (Transworld) via NetGalley
Release date (UK): 12th February 2015
Second Life is the follow-up to S. J. Watson’s smash-hit debut Before I Go To Sleep and, in many ways, it carries a lot of similar themes. Whilst the female protagonist in Before I Go To Sleep had memory issues which made it difficult for her to know who to trust, the protagonist in this novel also doesn’t know who to trust, especially when it comes to her sister’s murder.
Julia lives with her husband Hugh and their son, Connor, in what seems like suburban bliss. But, scratch the surface and something darker emerges – Julia is a recovering alcoholic with her fair share of skeletons in the closet, and their beloved son Connor isn’t really theirs – his biological mother is Julia’s sister, Kate. Kate had Connor when she was just sixteen, and the adoption arrangement had been what the entire family thought was for the best when it became clear that Kate wasn’t coping – until recently. Now, Kate wants him back.
The beginning of this novel moves quickly – we are barely introduced to the family dynamics before Julia’s sister, Kate, is found dead in an alleyway in Paris. The police dismiss Kate’s death as a mugging gone wrong, but Julia can’t let it lie. Riddled with guilt, grief and confusion, she goes through her sister’s funeral on auto-pilot, and only really starts to face the situation when she travels to Paris to stay with Kate’s roommate and best friend, Anna. In Anna, she finds someone who shares her pain, and someone who can help her understand her sister better.
When Julia learns that Kate had been regularly using dating sites to meet up with men ‘just for fun’ (if you know what I mean), she decides to take matters in her own hands and signs up to a dating website herself. She begins talking to a man called Lukas, who she suspects may have known Kate. But when she agrees to meet him in a nearby hotel, things take a different turn.
As soon as I began this story, I was gripped. Watson writes with short snappy prose, so nothing is superfluous to the story, and the plot moves fast. But it did begin to lose me a little in the middle; Julia’s suburban life is turned upside down as she enters a world of hidden secrets and illicit sex – it could have been great, but I began to question Julia’s character and actions (I did wonder if she was losing her mind at some points) and some of the scenes felt quite contrived, perhaps even dated. Constant references to ‘followers’ on Facebook really annoyed me, particularly in a book which attempts to highlight the dangers of meeting people online. The story morphed into more of a romantic thriller than a truly gritty murder mystery, and I think it suffered because of this at times.
That having been said, I can’t deny that I was gripped for the majority of the story. This is a punchy, quick read and I devoured it despite its faults – once past the iffy middle section the pace picks up considerably and as a series of revelations are made in quick succession and a cross-country escapade to the scene of the crime leaves Julia – and the reader – unsure who to trust up until the very last page.
All in all, this book was good, but it could have been better. It has the same gripping writing style, and themes of paranoia and lack of trust as we saw in Before I Go To Sleep but, whereas Before I Go To Sleep wrapped things up quite neatly at the end, the final page of this novel really threw me. It balked me so much that I was eagerly turning the page looking for an epilogue, and was left feeling disconcerted when there wasn’t one. But, I’d still recommend it for fans of fast-paced thrillers, and I wouldn’t write S. J. Watson off just yet.