Jewell's novel of lifelong obsessions, jealousies, neuroses, dissatisfactions, loneliness and solipsistic rage centers on newly-married Joey Mullen, who returns from Ibiza to Melville Heights, Bristol. Sitting atop the neighborhood's terraced embankment, Joey looks at row of Victorian villas and recalls how she dreamed of living here as a child. Which house would be hers, "the lilac or the pink?" Joey and her husband, Alfie, are living with her brother, Jack, and his wife, Rebecca--at least, until they get themselves sorted out.
Joey is increasingly attracted to a handsome neighbor, 51-year-old high-school administrator Tom Fitzwilliam. Tom arrived at the precise moment the hole in Joey's interior fantasy life needed filling. But what do you do with an unattainable crush once it's yours to keep? What does it become? Caught in the hard grip of shocking physical attraction, Jewell attempts to explore what lies at the root of Joey's sudden, unexpected obsession with Tom.
Freddie, Tom's son, sits by his bedroom window watching the people of Lower Melville. Training his binoculars, he spies his own his father in a taxi. He thinks of the smell of old beer coming off his father, symbolic of the sour smell of his secrets and lies. Freddie is shocked to learn about his father's trip to Spain in order to spend quality time with his students Jenna Tripp and Bess Ridley. Freddie wants his mother to tell him about what happened at the Lake District when Tim was getting onto a coach and a dark-haired woman appeared from nowhere--about fifty or so, her face distorted with rage and anger.
The novel is framed by Joey's recorded interview at Trinity Road Police Station following some unknown but terrible event that culminated in a stabbing murder in Melville Heights. Facing a pair of officious detectives, Joey recalls the dark shadow of Tom's hands pulling her body toward his. There's a brief flicker of something passing through her, "something bright and urgent."
Jewell uses chronological telling from different points in time to help us understand the psychological profiles of Joey, Freddie, Jenna, Bess, and "conventional" Tom Fitzwilliam, who for much of the story is achingly "squeaky" clean. With his unblemished reputation, Tom brings nothing but "light and harmony," though Jenna knows that the woman in the Lake District didn't like him. Jenna is surprised to learn that her mad mum also doesn't like him. Now, "for no particular reason," Jenna herself doesn't like him.
Jewell's strength isn't her prose; much of the novel feels cobbled together, and she conveys her characters' viewpoints in a flat narrative with minimal metaphors and similes. Her strength lies in her ability to keep us reading little details of lives that could be anyone's. She writes of disturbed people whose faces are raw with shame and self-pity. Her mystery revolves around need. There's a constant sense of Joey feeling trapped and somehow complicit in something strange and unsavory. Jenna is also plagued by the distasteful look that Mr. Fitzwilliam gives her. Jenna's mother spies Freddie at the window, stalking people in the Bristol area. She's angry at men like Tom Fitzwilliam, who get to "swan about in their big shiny cars without a care in the world."
While Watching You is not the most compelling of her novels, Jewell keeps us turning the pages with provocative individual perspectives. Trying to find out whether Tom is some sort of evil Machiavellian child molester certainly keeps the book's promise of a suspenseful tale alive. Is the story realistic? Not really, but Jewell manages to keep us turning those pages, hoping for some sort of resolution.