Second Life by SJ Watson

second lifeMisery loves company…

🙂 🙂 😐

Julia’s life is pretty good. She has a husband and son whom she loves and who love her. But her comfortable life is smashed into pieces when her beloved younger sister, Kate, is murdered in a seemingly random attack in an alley in Paris. When the weeks drag by and the police seem no nearer finding the murderer, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands. She has learned from Kate’s friend, Anna, that Kate had been using online sites to indulge in fantasy sex with strangers, and had sometimes met up with men she’d encountered there. So Julia decides to visit some of these sites herself to see if she can trace any of the men who knew Kate. Soon she has embroiled herself in a situation that threatens everything she holds dear, and she has to try to find a way out…

Oh dear! I’m sure there will be a million glowing reviews for this book, and it undoubtedly has some good points. But it’s yet another of these woeful misery-fests that have taken over bookworld recently – a first person present tense monologue from a narrator who is utterly miserable even before her sister is murdered, so you can imagine how cheery she is afterwards. There really ought to be some kind of rating system on the back of books to let people know in advance:

Sex – yes, lots and lots, both real and virtual, but not overly graphic
Foul language – occasional, but I’ve read far worse
Length – roughly twice as long as it needed to be
Humour – none, nada, not the slightest glimmer, not even unintentional
Misery – oh yes! Plenty! Enough to reduce the happiness quotient of the planet by at least 5%
Credibility – not much, and gets less as the book wears on

The first half of the book really drags with nothing much happening except Julia telling us how grief-stricken she is. A brutal edit of this section could have made a huge difference to the whole book. There were so many points where I really just didn’t want to go on with it – had it not been a review copy, I’d undoubtedly have given up. Not only is Julia dealing with her grief and her feelings of inadequacy as a parent to her adopted son, but she’s also a recovering alcoholic, so every few pages we are treated to her wishing she could have a drink and talking herself out of it. Am I really the only person in the world who is bored, bored, bored with reading about alcoholics? Especially when, as with this one, it had very little relevance to the plot.

The second half is much better once the plot finally begins to move. It’s still over-stuffed with Julia’s self-pitying whining, now also over the situation she has got herself into through her own stupidity. But the pace picks up and, so long as the reader can suspend disbelief, it builds quite a good momentum and some real tension towards the end. It’s not a plot to over-think since it is fundamentally silly, based on one ridiculous coincidence after another, but Watson writes well enough to keep the reader just about on-side. I imagine the ending will be divisive – personally, I was just rather glad to get to the end at all…

SJ Watson
SJ Watson

Overall, I’m reluctant to rate the book too low because, incomprehensible though it may be to me, I know there are lots of people who enjoy this kind of unremitting misery tale, and it’s as good as most of the ones I’ve read. My preference for a bit of light to contrast with the shade has undoubtedly coloured my view, as has my dislike for FPPT narratives. So while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, I won’t wholeheartedly condemn it either. I really enjoyed Watson’s first outing in Before I Go to Sleep and, although I found this one disappointing, he still shows the writing style and skill in characterisation that made that one so enjoyable. Here’s hoping that now that the always tricky second novel is out of the way, he’ll come back with a bang in his next.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

70 thoughts on “Second Life by SJ Watson

  1. It’s what they call, in the music business, second album syndrome – and it seems to apply to books too. I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves your reviews when you are, erm, not so keen on the books – they’re very funny! I’ve seen a lot of “disappointed” reviews, plus a couple of good ones, so I’ll be interested to see what this is like. I was a bit underwhelmed by his first one, I think I was expecting too much. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I find it easier to write more about why I didn’t like a book than why I did…!

    • Yes, it’s partly the books and partly the reader’s expectations being too high. That’s why I don’t want to slate this one entirely – if it had been a debut I might be saying it showed a lot of promise. Haha! Thank you – I need to get them out of my system somehow! 😉

      So far the reviews I’ve seen have been pretty mixed – a lot of it depends on whether you like these angst-laden characters or not. I’m afraid they bore me.

      I can write either love or hate reviews quite easily – it’s when a book is just OK that I really struggle. They always come out sounding more negative than I really feel, because everyone seems to assume that a critical review must mean you hated the book. But I’ve never been one of these lucky people who seem to love everything they read!

  2. Hmmm. Sounds a bit like 50 Shades bandwagon-jumping with a strong sexual theme, not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. Why is she so miserable if she has a loving husband and child and a comfortable life? I don’t even care, actually. I am all for silly plots but I think there has to be an element of humour in there somewhere. If a book is unrelentingly glum, yet silly, I get fed up quickly. Do you think this was named after the online game thingy Second Life? I understand lots of unsavoury stuff goes on there.

    • Yep, I’m sounding more like my mother every day (which makes me sob a bit) but I can’t stand the way every book seems to be about sex these days. And full of swearing. I guess it depends whether you want books to be ‘realistic’ but I actually want to be either educated or entertained, and reading lengthy descriptions of sex, misery and alcoholism just doesn’t do it for me! Oh she was miserable because she might have been a great photographer but messed her life up – yawn! Middle-class angst – dontcha just want to slap ’em? (Am I sounding bitter today? I think I need a nap!)

      Ah now – perhaps! I didn’t know that had unsavoury elements to it. Her second life was apparently her current life – after she’d messed up in her youth. But actually I didn’t think the title was very good, but maybe you’re right and I missed the significance…

      • I have to say I agree with you – but ‘realism’ doesn’t have to be all about sex and violence. I have led quite a colourful life thusfar and the very last thing I am is a prude but sometimes I just want to read about some nice people, doing interesting yet cheerful things and generally having a nice time. There are not enough books like that. Just a case of personal taste, I reckon. (Not bitter at all, I couldn’t agree more!)

        The title only makes things more confusing, then haha! I was maybe thinking that her second life was whatever she got up to online trying to find her sister’s killer. No wonder the poor cow is miserable – she’s got two lives and both of them are crap!

  3. Well, I’m reading things that hit both sides of the spectrum on this book. Interesting, sort of. I did like the first book by this author. I’m trying to think if that was because the storyline was not one that had been done over and over – or maybe it had been and I just hadn’t read those books. Anyway, I’ve been curious about this one. Sophomore slump? Or maybe one shouldn’t read this one too close to reading THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And humor? You know, humor goes a long way toward making me like a book. I’ll likely try it just to see, but am happy to be warned to not read it when I’m down in the dumps. LOL

    • Yes, I think this one will get mixed reviews – it’ll depend on whether the reader likes these misery-laden characters, and I know lots of people do. But I need a bit of humour just to lighten the tone occasionally. In real life, very few people can go through a whole year without finding some small thing to enjoy. I think it was the originality of the first one I liked – plus I thought the characterisation was pretty good. And that was a strength in this one too, except that the character was so miserable…

  4. Thanks, FictionFan, as ever, for your candid and thoughtful review. I really like that rating system you propose, actually. It certainly answers a lot of questions. I’ve noticed too the growing number of books out there that have those terribly sad characters who tell you their stories in the first person. Every once in a while it works well. But so often….it doesn’t. And certainly it doesn’t without anything original in it…. I think I’ll give this one a miss.

    • I’m thinking the rating system would be quicker and more useful than the reviews! I might adopt it! Yes, it’s a difficult balance – obviously, we don’t want every character to be happy all the time – somthing must be happening to them to make them interesting. But I think it’s when there’s no shading that I object. I don’t want Pollyanna but Eeyore gets a bit much too…

  5. I’m sorry that you had to suffer through that for us. Sometimes you just have to wade in the mud puddle to get to the bottom of it. I do like your rating. May I use it if I give you credit?

    • Ah well, onwards and upwards! Maybe the next one will be about someone so nauseatingly happy I’ll want to slap her! 😉 Haha! Yes, feel free! I may use it again myself too sometimes…

  6. It’s so frustrating to read a book when you don’t actually like the narrator, especially in the present tense, when you’re forced to listen to them whine about every useless thought that runs through their head! I read ‘Cruel Beauty’ a while back and it was the same way. The narrator was just so obnoxious and it was like she was proud of how obnoxious she was!

    • Yes, it’s the whining! Like that dentist’s drill boring into your head! I always reckon that if I wouldn’t want to spend any time with the person in real life why would I want to spend hours inside their head in a book…?

    • Yep, it’s getting the balance that’s the key. All the books I’ve most loved have had at least a touch of humour in them – just like life! No matter how awful life in general might be from time to time, there are usually bright spots that lift it, and I hate when a book doesn’t reflect that…

  7. *laughs* I’m feeling really bad the sudden. See, one thing I took from the 5th Wave is how depressing it was…

    Foul language, and you’ve read for worse?! FEF!!!

    This is a great review; never feel about about ripping and ripping hard, I say. I don’t, you know, you know.

    Now, the question is, should he save and get new glasses? The answer is, I think, yes.

    • FPPT and depressing?!? You hate me, don’t you?!? Though I must say, so far it’s quite…

      Not voluntarily I assure you! But foul language, sex and violence seem to have taken over from fun, red herrings and mystery in crime these days. Oh for the good old days when you could have six corpses and the most anyone ever said was ‘Oh dear’!

      Your example leads me on through the darkest book! I sharpen my imaginary katana and whirl it round my head…

      *chuckles* Bigger ones perhaps…

      • *storms, rampages and storms some more* Don’t you see how unfair that is? DON’T YOU?! I bet you’re liking it a bit!

        *laughs* That’s about what I might say. Or I might say, “Goodness.” Maybe you should stop reading crime, and start reading lots of fantasy.

        Aha! That’s a great image. You’re like Dejah, the sudden. Your rips are awesome.

        Bigger? That would ruin the hope he has.

        • *laughs and laughs* OK, I’ll stop being unfair. I admit I’m enjoying it considerably more than I expected. I’ve just finished the first section with Cassie, and read a chapter or two of the guy’s story – still don’t know his name. It’s pretty dark, but Cassie had a nice little bit of humour going on which lifts it. We shall see… Have you read the follow-up yet?

          Your Cassie needs to wash her mouth out with soap too though…

          *blushes* Thank you! But I always wear clothes while ripping… it’s cold here in Scotland…

          He has hope?

          • I was just about to…attack or something, too. *smiles bigly* I didn’t want to read it at first either, you should know. Cassie has an awesome voice. The guy…well, you know the guy. You just don’t know that you know the guy. Ringer’s coming! I have read the follow-up, yes…but…

            Does she swear lots? I really can’t remember.

            *laughs* Dejah does too, you should know.

            *laughs even more* He’s not yummy?

            • Hmm… hit the teen “romance” bit last night. Maybe I’m too… old… *shudders slightly* Still no Ringer… Yes… but…??

              Yes – a lot! And she’s getting worse!

              *refuses to say*

            • *laughs* Yeah, that’s the worst part of the book. Pretend it’s Darby and Lizio. Well, I wasn’t too happy with the sequel, you should know.

              Really? I’m…quite embarrassed, the sudden.

              Not fair!

            • Ooh, no, please – that might put me off my Darby for ever! And Lizio would never behave in such a way!! That’s a pity – why? If you can say without spoilers for this one, that is…

              Why embarrassed? I’m surprised you didn’t notice it. I’ve read much worse (unfortunately) but I’d have hoped YA might not have gone down that route… *purses lips like a disapproving grandmother, then realises this could cause wrinkles and stops*

              Wicked tempter!

            • *laughs* You know, I can’t remember it too muchly much. I just remember hating Evan with a passion (I still do, btw; could never stand him) and thinking Cassie was being stupid. But that’s love for you. Well, the second one doesn’t seem to advance the plot at all. I liked it…but it gave me the impression the author wasn’t sure what to do.

              I probably did notice it! And I should have remembered. Some YA is awesome, I think. But they’re so hard to find. *laughs*

              *kicks the dirt*

            • Evan is horrid! But I’m assuming that when Cassie meets up again with Zombie that there will be fireworks… Ah, love can be wonderful when it’s a perfect match – like Darby and Lizio! Hmm… interesting! I wonder if he didn’t originally intend to write a second and just got trapped into it because the first was so successful…

              Well, lots of Old Adults are raving about YA stuff recently – but a lot of it seems to be fairly romance based, I think.

              So you should, wicked one!

            • *laughs* That’s a very good thought. Bet you’re right! Evan is horrid. Glad you agree! That’s the Darby character in the story, see.

              It is! And what’s with that? Violence is key.

              I might be kicking it at you!

            • Evan is not Darby!!! Finished it – you’ll be glad to hear it picked up again towards the end – if I’d just skipped out the middle third I’d have really enjoyed it! Shall I review it though? Hmm… but the Professor never pouts. I have to admit that they seem like the most inefficient aliens in the universe though – you’d think in 6000 years they’d have been able to work out a way to eliminate us completely in one wave – I reckon the Pentagon already knows how to do that!

              Hmm… only non-violent violence!

              *confident face* Nah, I know my Professor would never do that!

            • Wasn’t Ringer awesome? She didn’t take to Zombie’s attempted flirting. Nice. *laughs* Skip the middle, and it was good. Haha. Definitely review and rip it, if you’d like. I’d love to read all your thoughts, truly. That’s what I thought! The aliens are ridiculous. *shakes head, amused* They’d be no match for me! I want to raid the Pentagon one day.

              That’s an impossibility. Well, unless one could say: non-romantic romance is best.

              *snaps fingers* Rats.

            • Oh, I’m not sure – I think he was winning her round. Her lip twitched occasionally. I actually preferred Cassie to Ringer, despite her unfortunate language issues and her inability to concentrate on death and destruction every time a good-looking guy walked past. But it’s true – girls always make the best heroes! Yeah, the aliens were stupid – I kept hoping there would be a twist to explain that their plan was really intelligent after all – but no, alas! You should! I’ll wait outside and hoot like an owl if anyone comes along…

              Ah, but you see I love non-romantic romance – it’s the best kind!

        • No! He was not!!! Cassie was a typical girl, see. Girls make the best heroes? *laughs* That’ll be the day. The alien situation takes a turn for the worst in the second. Plus Grace comes into it. That’s Evan’s ‘before Cassie’ girlfriend. Such fickle characters, see. An owl? You would have to roar…like a bear!

          That, madam, makes not an ounce of sense! *nods*

          • You’re not… you couldn’t… you wouldn’t be trying to persuade me to read the follow-up, would you, my cruel killer-bee!? Cassie was not typical! I hardly ever shoot people with my M-whatever-it-was! I thought Evan’s griflfriend was called Laurel or something – maybe that was his sister. It’s kinda sad that I’ve forgotten so much when I haven’t written my review yet… *practices roaring*

            *laughs* It does too!! Flowers are much less romantic than laughter, you know, you know…

            • Nah…’course not. I just gave you a bunch of reasons not to, I thought. I’m always blamed! I am waiting very un-patiently for your review.

              Now don’t you go and say laughter is romantic! Otherwise I’ll be in trouble.

            • *nods* That’s ‘cos it’s always your fault! Maybe tomorrow, or Monday at the latest…it might take me some time to edit the swearie words out of the quotes… *cackles*

              You are in big BIG trouble, honeybunnikins, ‘cos I fear it’s true! Ask any girl what she most looks for in a guy and nine out of ten will say ‘someone who makes me laugh’ Except Cassie – she’ll say ‘someone with a nice butt’. And Amelia will say ‘who cares so long as he’s male and alive’ and then she’ll flutter her dead insects… *growls*

            • Oh, there can’t be that many! Vin swears, so it must be okay. I bet Vince doesn’t, though.

              Hmm…you are right: girls do say that, but I don’t make people laugh. See, I just make people laugh at character misfortunes, or something like that. *loosens collar* *laughs* Oh dear…Cassie did say that, didn’t she? Rats… Don’t you think Amelia is a pretty name?

            • Vin looks the type! I sincerely hope Vince doesn’t!! *severe glare*

              I’m so sorry, but you do! It’s just one of those burdens you must bear! And if you train that squirrel properly you’ll be able to make people laugh without even speaking!! She did! Several times! Shocking!!

              *growls warningly* I may have done once, but no longer! Do you…???

            • I bet he doesn’t. Bill wouldn’t like it. Or maybe he would. And this professor swears all the time. All sorts of professorish swear words.

              Aha! So I”m allowed to get one, then. Yeah… *gags* Well, what do you want? Girls are disgusting!

              Well, it suddenly means something it never did before, if that makes sense.

            • Bill? Professorish swear words are acceptable – I use them myself from time to time.

              NO!!!! You think I’m disgusting?!? Well, boys are horrid!!

              Has the Professor fallen in love with an Amelia, perhaps???

            • Bill Belichick. He’s the head coach of the Patriots. Vince’s boss, see. Great!

              *laughs* Well…you’re not. Not all girls are. And I am horrid!

              I can assure you not. Remember, I’m heartless. I actually don’t know anyone who has that name!

            • Whaaaat!!!! You mean she’s only there to make me jealous!!! Why, you… But fortunately I know I’m far more gorgeous than the insect-eyelash-enhanced one could ever be! *tosses hair and flounces off haughtily*

  8. Given that I got absolutely nowhere with his first book I think it extremely unlikely that I am going to enjoy this one. In fact, I have yet to see a positive review for it. Second book syndrome indeed. having said that, I’ve just read Eva Dolan’s second book, ‘Tell No Tales’ and it is even better than the first one was. So, it doesn’t always hold true.

    • Hi Alex, good to see you back in action! I’ve been worrying about you! Hope you’re well…

      The reviews on Goodreads are pretty mixed. Lots of people seem to like these angst-laden characters, but not me, I’m afraid. Not without a bit of something to provide contrast anyway. I keep seeing positive reviews for Eva Dolan – must try to fit her in…somehow…

  9. This one is on my to-read list – I enjoyed his first novel, but did have some problems with it so I won’t go into the new book with really high expectations. Enjoyed reading your review!

  10. Yuk! No further comment needed. I so agree with you about turning into Mum – I got there quite some time ago. This is why I keep rereading books written before the pop culture watershed. Maybe books should be graded not by minimum but by maximum age of reader: that would save me even having to consider about 80% of what is being written nowadays (old lady shuffles off muttering incoherently).

    • Haha! I think that’s very true! I often find myself tut-tutting over things that wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest in my youth. And now when I see a review saying “this is the kind of book you could safely let you gran read”, my interest perks up!

  11. I had to wait to read your review until I’d written mine because when I started reading this one I actually thought to myself FF is going to struggle with this one! I did chuckle at your comment about the ending, what a fantastic line! I’m not going to give my opinion here but there are some elements of your review that I agree with… and of course some I don’t 🙂

    • Haha! It’s funny how we all get to know each other’s preferences after a time. I was thinking you’d enjoy this one more than me, and it was nearly miserable enough to entice even Lady Fancifull! 😉

      I see your review’s up – just about to pop over and see what you say…

    • Haha! It’s the NetGalley effect! I think your tolerance for misery is higher than mine so hopefully you’ll enjoy it more. And the second half is definitely better than the first. Yeah, it’s trying to find something interesting to say about a book that neither wowed you or infuriated you…

    • I know, but it must be horrible when everyone has such high expectations. I hope the disappointed reaction to this one won’t put him off – he just needs to tighten up on the plotting and pacing a bit…

  12. This is the second review I read for Second Life, and the two of you say exactly the same about the first half being boring. The other blogger whose review I recently read gave the novel quite a high rating, but I guess Watson is quite a polarizing writer: there are people who adored Before I Go to Sleep, and there are people who just didn’t.

    • Yes, I’m sure this one will divide people, but I did love Before I Go to Sleep and really didn’t think this one was as good. But given the more positive reviews I’ve seen elsewhere, I still think it’s worth reading – he writes well, so it’s just down to persoanl preference over the plot and the style.

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