second life by s j watson

After reading Before I Go To Sleep earlier this year, I honestly didn’t think that I would pick anything up again by S J Watson. Despite the fact that everyone seemed to be enthralled by it, I just didn’t like it all that much. So why did I give Second Life a go? Well, because a friend lent it to me – and I can never refuse a book.

Set in London, Second Life is told from the perspective of Julia, who appears to have the perfect life – surgeon husband, smart son and beautiful home in the heart of the city. But then, her younger sister, Kate, is murdered and Julia’s life falls apart. When the police find nothing and in order to deal with her own grief, Julia begins exploring the online, sexual world that Kate frequented, only to find that she too gets sucked in. What starts as a way to solve the murder of her sister quickly becomes an illicit love affair with a man that isn’t who he appears to be.

Dull. Dull. Dull. That is the first word that pops into my mind when I think about the plot of Second Life and it was one that I repeated like a mantra to myself while I was reading it. Reading this book was hard work, and considering it’s a crime novel, it really shouldn’t have been. Crime novels, though not considered the highest form of literature, are meant to be fast-paced, entertaining and gripping. This one? Not a chance in hell.

There were multiple problems with Second Life but the biggest one was that the protagonist Julia was completely unlikeable. While this doesn’t necessary have to be a problem with novels (such as with The Girl on the Train), in this case it was completely infuriating. Not only is Julia incredibly stupid, but she’s also neither particularly entertaining nor three-dimensional. We’re expected to believe that she scoffs at the idea of Kate having sex with strangers, only for her to, almost quite literally, begin an affair with a man she met online. And then this affair with this man who is clearly not a nice guy, just keeps getting dragged on and on because Julia doesn’t want to accept that he’s a creep. While I understand S J Watson was trying to depict addiction, his execution was simply frustrating and dull for the reader. What should have been a fast-paced thriller about a murder instead became an over-long drama about a silly woman and a control-obsessed man. Plus, I’d like to add that while this does take up the bulk of the storyline, it does still mean slogging through at least 200 pages before we learn that it isn’t a typical affair.

The second issue I had with this novel was Watson’s style of writing. I wasn’t particularly a fan of Before I Go To Sleep but this just cemented it – I honestly don’t think he’s a good writer. His characters are two dimensional, his plots weave in and out of themselves so that they end up nowhere, yet are still full of holes, and his sex scenes were, well, underwhelming at best. Any writer who uses the word ‘prick’ in a sexual way is not good at writing sex scenes, and it’s clear that his editor wasn’t female. Unless this is an Australianism, I was always taught that ‘prick’ was slang for ‘tiny penis’ (get it – cause it’s just a tiny little prick) and having the image of ‘tiny penis’ described in a sexual manner did nothing for me whatsoever.

Lastly, the devices that Watson uses weren’t used to their full effect. Not only are we competing with an affair and the murder of a woman, but we’re also expected to retain the energy and excitement over a third storyline that occurred 25 years ago and keeps getting mentioned, but never in detail. Also, it’s this third storyline that ends up being the main crux of the plot, though once again, we’re not told enough about it to deduce that ourselves. And then we’re expected to just ignore the fact that to be intertwined all three plots have to be the biggest coincidences of all time. Sorry, but not buying it.

Crime fiction is meant to be fast-paced, gripping and entertaining as hell. The turn ‘couldn’t put it down’ should first and foremost be associated with crime. Instead, Second Life is a lacklustre crime/pseudo-love story that fails to deliver on both counts. Choose something else when next at the bookstore.

Have you read Second Life or anything by S J Watson? What did you think? Let me know!