Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Second Life.
Watson leans heavily on his characters’ dysfunctions, childhood traumas, and lingering losses to affect their choices in life.
His main protagonist, Julia, a Londoner, is unmoored by her sister Kate’s violent death in a Paris alley. The history between the sisters is layered with love, guilt, and the distance between them, both geographic and emotional. Married to Hugh, a surgeon, Julia is a photographer whose work is worthy of gallery showings, though she has scaled down her artistic ambitions, creating a life of substance with Hugh and her work, the pair raising Kate’s son, Connor, born when his mother was only sixteen. Fashioning a practical solution to the problems of a young mother ill-prepared to manage, Hugh and Julia have been supportive of Kate over the years Connor has grown up in their home. Only recently has trouble erupted, Kate calling at all hours of the night, drunk and rambling, begging for the return of her son. It is a painful situation for all involved, Kate’s death a violent and final ending that haunts Julia.
Kate’s untimely death a catalyst for the resurgence of old memories, the past is juxtaposed on the present. Julia travels
to France to meet with Kate’s roommate, Anna, and gather her sister’s few
personal belongings. Among them is a photograph album with a series of images
taken when Julia was young and in love in Berlin, living with Marcus, an artist,
both indulging in the excesses of a hedonistic artistic community. Pulled back
into that time after her visit to Anna, purposely losing touch with close
friends who care about her well-being and concerned that Kate’s casual fantasies
and online romances might somehow have contributed to her death, Julia falls
down the rabbit hole, obsessed with tracking her sister’s online dalliances. It
is a tricky landscape for Julia, one that shields questionable intentions behind
anonymity, a psychological netherworld that is both treacherous and seductive to
a vulnerable woman untethered from a carefully constructed way of life meant to protect her from untrustworthy inclinations.
Riddled with uncertainty yet compelled to find the answer to Kate’s death, Julia plunges into the world of the web that appeals to the lonely and the gullible: predators disguised as lovers and friends, a psychological playground without boundaries, real life paling in comparison to imagination. Keeping her own secrets even from her husband, Julia’s choices are built on need and rationalization, past wounds and unfulfilled dreams mingling with decisions that take her to the brink of a precipice. Her journey begins with Kate’s death but has been shaped by years of ghosts, family issues and private shame. To be sure, there are others along the way--villains, caretakers, and enablers--as well as a stunning betrayal.
The unraveling begins subtly with the broken relationship of two sisters, but Julia’s slide into another life is littered with excuses, driven by blind need with little attention to consequences. It is easy to get tangled up with Julia’s compulsions, but more is at stake that one woman’s distress: there is murder afoot. This swift, inevitable slide from normalcy to chaos is difficult to experience. How many times can a protagonist avoid personal responsibility, claiming “I couldn’t help myself”? Not only does Julia lose credibility, but sympathy. Watson’s characters color outside the lines with impunity, disdaining the rational for the willful, the disease du jour--addiction--the fulcrum for self-destruction, even murder a reasonable solution to a self-created problem. Chaos breeds chaos. Ultimately, it’s exhausting--and ridiculous.