I was looking forward to reading Before I Go to Sleep. It’s S. J. Watson’s debut novel and it’s billed as a psychological thriller. A movie starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Mark Strong is due to be released in the UK this week. It’s always dangerous to compare, but I really enjoyed reading Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn and The Silent Wife, by A. S. A. Harrison, and I was ready for more of this genre about creepy relationships.
The opening chapter presents a promising story. Christine Lucas, after a mysterious accident, wakes each morning with no memory of the past. She’s living a life she doesn’t know with a husband she doesn’t recognize. Short term memories last a mere twenty-four hours or less, lost each night when she goes to sleep. A call from Dr. Nash directs her to a journal. At his urging, for the last month, she has recorded her actions and thoughts. Her doctor hopes this journal will help restore her memory and he also thinks it will be a good subject for a paper he’s writing. But Dr. Nash is a secret and so is the journal, kept hidden from her loving husband. Its first page warns her, in capital letters: DON’T TRUST BEN.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But very quickly, Christine’s journal entries become a curious combination of repetitive tedium (waking, not knowing where she is, who the man next to her is…) and an incredible recall of detailed descriptions and full conversations. The entire story depends on the reader’s acceptance of this cumbersome construct, which must be explained again and again: How she even knows she has a journal each morning (Dr. Nash calls to remind her on a special cell phone); the sequence of her entries (is she writing this as it happens, or just before bed or when she feigns a headache?; where she hides the book, etc. Sometimes the journal reads like a teenage diary, with lots of recaps of Ben telling her he loves her. And every morning, Christine needs to read the entire journal to catch up to where she is on that day. There are some mysterious plot developments revolving around her injury, her previous career, her treatment. Did they have children? Where is the rest of her family? What about friends?
Dramatic moments occur in which vivid, but disturbing images return to Christine and she rushes to record them. We slog through the progress with a minimum of momentum, until we reach a dramatic ending filled with unlikely coincidences. I was disappointed.
The disappointing plot is the main problem of Before I Go to Sleep, but despite my assumption that in this genre, plot rules over characterization, Watson’s characters offer little to redeem this story. In particular, I don’t think he has good insight into a woman’s point of view or of what women in their mid-to-late forties are really like. Christine has a lot of wrinkles, her body is sagging and unrecognizable and her face is blotchy with age spots. Seriously?
And while I strive to write reviews with a PG rating, I must mention the author’s overuse of a certain four-letter word. I won’t go into details, but this word, plus other descriptions are ridiculous, adolescent, and they add nothing. I hope I never read another sex scene like the ones in this book!
I’m usually a positive person. I can find something to like in almost everything I read. So to remain true to this attitude, I will tell you that the premise of the story is good, though not necessarily original. This could have been a much better book if its storyline did not depend so much on Christine’s journal. It’s a quick, light read, despite the repetition, appropriate for the beach, if you can still get there in September!
Have you read Before I Go to Sleep? What did you think?
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