[I paid nothing for this book, instead being provided with an uncorrected proof copy through the kindness of the publisher, Harper Collins, gifted via Edelweiss. I thank them profusely.]
There is always a burden on an author delivering a second novel when their first novel has been a tremendous success. S.J Watson's first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, was not merely a success, it set the trend for all the huge domestic psychological thrillers which have come since: Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train... Watson's debut was there first, 4 whole years ago. Watson doesn't merely need to stand up well against himself, he also needs to stand up well in an increasingly saturated market where the books we now hear about tend to be very good indeed.
When Julia's younger sister Kate is found dead in a Paris back-alley, Julia is destroyed with grief. Learning from Kate's housemate that Kate used internet dating sites to arrange smexy liaisons, Julia becomes convinced it was one of these men who killed her. So she does what anybody obsessed with an idea does: attempt to find proof. She sets herself up on some websites to entice the murderer. Except the man she does meet, Lukas, is everything her perfect middle-class life is missing.
Initially, this is slow. It takes a good 40% to get started properly and I was consciously reading with one eye trying to work out what was going to Be Important Later and why. I couldn't really engage with Julia's initial shock and grief over the loss of her sister and was instead waiting for the inevitable Search For The Truth to begin. Once it does it's good, the flirty messages becoming something more until sexual fantasy collides with reality and being controlled is considered part of the game. These aspects of the book are done excellently - and by that I mean so horrific and triggering I would have stopped reading if this hadn't been an ARC, which is the reason I'm mentioning them. It's gradual and insidious, the type of thing which can be explained away so very easily even when you aren't Julia, a grief-wreaked alcoholic fighting a relapse.
The trouble is it becomes boring. Julia's head is a fairly dull place to spend time and even before the book shifted into its end-game I became deeply irritated by her actions (and inactions), some of which felt designed to artificially spin the story out a bit longer.
I was also unreasonably annoyed by her alcoholism. It felt like a device, and while I think it could have been a very effective one, it needed to treat alcoholism as more than just wanting a drink and riding out the compulsion.
For instance, there is nothing about Julia's active alcoholism in her youth, only her attendance at the AA meeting where she meets Markus. She bangs on about failing her sister, about her guilt at leaving her behind when she went to Berlin, but never a word about the drinking she must have been doing when she was bringing Kate up or the effects of it. I genuinely thought Julia would turn out to have been lying about it, or faking it for some reason. It's used as a minor spoke in the story and could have had far more mileage than it's given.
In the end this story is wrecked by its own plot. The grand reveal of what's really going on is a laser saw away from the Bond-Villain School of Illogical Schemes. Plus, it makes something either a catastrophic plot hole or a clever piece of misdirection depending on your overall view of the book. If I learned Watson was a pantser rather than a plotter, I'd nod sagely and say, 'Well, that explains it.'
SJ Watson is a good writer. Whatever churlish things I'd say about Before I Go To Sleep must be countered by the fact it had me absolutely gripped by the end. Although Second Life never managed to hook me the same way there are some excellently done parts; it's scary because it's real. Until the last 10%, I genuinely wasn't sure how I was going to rate this. Happily, the terrible ending made it easy: 2 stars (but I'm definitely going to be interested in whatever Watson comes out with next.)