I was stressed about some issues in my own life when I opened Second Life by S.J. Watson. I should have known better. After all, Watson’s previous novel, Before I Go to Sleep, left me with an uneasy feeling of impending doom that stayed with me for days. In this new book, Watson does it again, ratcheting up the tension on each page and never letting up
Julia Plummer is yet another troubled young wife. Her story opens at “Partied Out,” an art exhibition that features a photograph of Marcus, a former lover of hers from a drug-addled period when she had lived in Berlin. As we soon learn, Julia had taken the picture of Marcus and herself in a mirror but later cut herself out of the picture: “the first time I used my art to lie.”
As the tale unfolds, we’re introduced to Julia’s husband Hugh, who had rescued her from that dark period in Berlin, and to her teenage son Connor, who is actually the son of her younger sister Kate. After a tense and prolonged tug of war between the sisters about the custody of Connor, Kate meets a violent death in a Parisian alleyway. Julia, now dealing with the aftermath of her sister’s death, begins a series of misguided efforts to solve (and avenge) that death—efforts that soon lead her into a web of lies and liaisons with Lukas, a man she meets on encounterz, a website her sister had used to meet men.
Along the way, disturbing incidents pile up: A husband of one of Hugh’s colleagues flirts aggressively with Julia at a party and is mugged soon thereafter. Julia finds a mound of sleazy postcards stuffed into her mailbox. And the lovemaking sessions with Lukas become increasingly violent. As she descends into this new period of darkness, she questions her own motives. “It’s the exact same feeling I used to have about heroin; how can something that feels this good ever hurt me?” she says. Later, she beats herself up. “All this has happened because I tried to take more than I was owed. More than I deserved. I had my second chance, my second life, and it wasn’t enough. I wanted more.”
Along with Julia, Hugh, Lukas, and the supporting cast of shadowy characters, Watson wants us to consider the Internet as another main character. After all, it does seem to serve a critical link among everyone. It’s the way that Kate reconnects with Anna, an old friend who becomes her roommate in Paris. Later, it’s a Facebook profile that draws Connor into his own ill-fated online relationship. And it’s the Facebook “Nearby Friends” feature that Julia uses to track down Anna and the elusive Lukas in a harrowing series of scenes leading to the book’s climax. The Internet serves as an intermediary among the characters, creating the connections that enable their desires to overrun.
Second Life is yet another in a series of psychological thrillers featuring marriages packed with dark and ugly secrets, titles that seem to have been heralded by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s a genre that some have described as going beyond “chick lit” to “chick noir.” Or, as Lucie Whitehouse hypothesized in her article, “The Rise of the Marriage Thriller,” in The Guardian last year, it’s a specific subgenre of “marriage noir” that is an inevitable result of living in an age of extreme exposure from every media outlet, where “people feel increasingly free to share their own personal details; however, for many, divulging secrets about a marriage is the one thing that remains off-limits.” After all, getting an insider’s view into a situation so intimate is irresistible, isn’t it?
When you consider that S.J. Watson is not a woman and is, in fact, a former employee of the U.K. National Health Service and a relative newcomer to the literary world, he’s a unique addition to the ranks of authors that include Flynn, Rosamond Lupton, Emma Chapman, and so many others. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe he just knows how to engage and intrigue the growing audience of voyeurs that lurk on the Internet, watching and waiting for us to reveal our dirty secrets.
At any rate, if don’t think you’d mind adding to your own stress level with a rollercoaster ride to the dark side in London, Second Life is surely your cup of tea. As for me, I’m looking for relief in more peaceful reading. J.K. Rowling, anyone?
Julia Bailey is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She divides her time between tackling technical and thought leadership pieces for B2B marketers in energy and technology and more down-to-earth content for healthcare clients and magazines. She spends her downtime reading voraciously, following the Chicago Cubs passionately, watching Real Housewives guiltily, and hanging out with her daughter (also a writer) happily. Follow Julia on Twitter @bailey_julia. Website: juliabaileywrites.com