I'm not prone to over-the-top hyperbole, but I must say that S.J. Watson's debut "Before I Go To Sleep" caught me by complete surprise. I knew very little about the book and so went into the experience with no preconceived notions or expectations. And I'll tell you--I quite loved this book! In fact (cue hyperbole), it may just be my favorite book of 2011 thus far. The narrative structure of Watson's book is a complicated trick to pull off--and before I gush--I never fully believed it. Most of the story is structured as a diary, if you will, recounting daily events. In many cases this journal is hastily written, and yet it is just so thoroughly professional, polished, complete, and detailed. I know the character was a latent writer, but the prose is just too lush and descriptive to be random recollections and musings done in a time pinch. But even though I never really fully bought into this aspect, the book made me a believer with its compelling plot and challenging questions.
Very quickly, the story concerns a woman with an unusual memory deficiency. Every morning she awakes with no idea of who she is, where she is, and who is sleeping in bed next to her. Her husband must start every day hitting the highlights of her life and condition caused by a trauma many years in the past. Working with a tenacious new doctor, Christine starts to document each of her days in a journal. Keeping track of daily events and discoveries starts to link her full story together, but it might be a story best left unraveled. What begins as a harrowing psychological drama soon gives way to a suspense thriller where Christine doesn't know who to trust. She can't even trust herself!
Watson tells a killer tale, really entertaining. But beyond pleasurable reading, the novel had me questioning what I'd want in a similar circumstance. Is it always best to know the truth? After all, ignorance is bliss. When you can't distinguish memory from fantasy, can you start to build a meaningful life? If you can never reciprocate in a relationship, how much allegiance do your loved ones owe you? When is a condition so problematic as to be insurmountable? The novel's greatest strength is that it really challenges the notion of reality. Is it a finite construct or something a little less tangible? Watson digs to the very soul of Christine and it is fascinating, disturbing, and memorable.
The last time I had such a visceral response to a novel, it was Emma Donoghue's "Room" (one of my three favorite books of 2010). I felt the frustration, anguish, fear, and desperation. Any story that can elicit such reaction or emotion out of my cold dead heart earns my unequalled respect. Again, I'm not saying that the novel is perfect--its central mystery is not as mysterious as I might have liked--but the journey to the that truth is devastatingly heartfelt and fraught with peril and uncertainty. Again, I loved this book! And for getting inside my brain so completely, I have to give it the highest ranking from a purely emotional level. Try it! KGHarris, 4/11.
With a premise as deceptively simple as this, execution is everything. How does one create a coherent first person narrative wherein the protagonist does not remember anything from the last chapter? In this case, Watson met the challenge in such a way that I was riveted from the disoriented beginning to startling end.
"I look up at the mirror.
"The face I see looking back at me is not my own. The hair has no volume and is cut much shorter than I wear it; the skin on the cheeks and under the chin sags; the lips are thin; the mouth turned down. I cry out, a wordless gasp that would turn into a shriek of shock were I to let it, and then notice the eyes. The skin around then is lined, yes, but despite everything else, I can see that they are mine. The person in the mirror is me, but I am twenty years too old. Twenty-five. More.
"This isn't possible. I begin to shake and grip the edge of the sink. Another scream begins to rise in my chest and this one erupts as a strangled gasp. I step back, away from the mirror...I step back farther, until I feel cold tiles against my back. It is then I get the glimmer that I associate with memory. As my mind tries to settle on it, it flutters away, like ashes caught in a breeze, and I realize that in my life there is a then, a before, though before what I cannot say, and there is a now, and there is nothing between the two but a long, silent emptiness that has led me here...."
Somehow, even though Christine wakes up each day without any recent memory, the narrative still progresses logically and in a fast paced manner. The mystery and suspense are built in as, seen through Christine's unreliable perspective, everything is suspicious and baffling. The truth, or Christine's perception of what was true, was constantly shifting and changing, yet I as the reader was able to hang on the roller coaster ride.
Who do you trust when you have no recollection of what people are telling you? Despite being nearly incapacitated with her amnesia, somehow Christine painstakingly pieces together a fragmented picture of what happened and what is being kept from her by those she's supposed to trust - her husband and her doctor - both of whom are telling her different versions of her life. To make things even more complicated, what they're telling her also contradict the few puzzling memories that eventually resurface.
Christine's sanity and identity are assaulted every time she wakes up but something is horribly wrong beyond Christine's amnesia and how it has wrecked her life. How Christine manages to uncover the devastating and shocking truth inspite of being unable to rely upon her own recollection is a marvel of storytelling. Before I Go to Sleep is not a perfect, airtight book - it has some logical holes - but I never saw what was coming; I was as stunned as Christine!
Hard to believe it's a debut novel, SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep has garnered star reviewed from Kirkus and Booklist and was in development to be adapted into a movie before the book was even released. And though I've read some excellent books this year, I haven't come across a novel that would appeal to so many readers. This book has all the makings of an absolute block buster.
It begins as a twenty something Christine wakes up in a stranger's bed unable to remember how she got there. She quickly learns some disturbing facts: the stranger is her husband, Ben who she can't remember at all, she is middle aged and has forgotten most of her life, and she suffers from a rare form of amnesia where she can't retain memories from day to day. As she's trying to cope with all of this information, she stumbles across something more bizarre--a journal where she's been recording her recollections of recent day's events beginning with the title page on which she has scrawled, "Don't Trust Ben!"
And then the story is told through Christine's journal offering the readers an over the shoulder roller coaster ride as Christine tries to determine what has happened to her, and who if anyone she can trust. The dread mounts until the book's messy conclusion. Because it's so well plotted to say Watson's story is "gripping" is an understatement, it is simply breathtaking. It's a hell of a book, and is sure to be a hell of a movie. Highly recommended.
on September 25, 2011
Have you every read a slew of reviews and thought "what book were these readers reading"?
That's the question I have after seeing any review that claims this book is thrilling. Or even entertaining. My gut feeling is this book has been guerrilla marketed. Watson is not a bad writer; indeed I agree with the reviewer that said he does a fine job of capturing the experience of a character rewriting her history each day through keeping a journal (stop for a second, however, and ask yourself if this is a good thing).
The premise is an interesting one, if not a bit overdone these days (in fact, see "Memento", the movie, a much more intriguing thriller that examines a protagonist with a terrifying memory affliction). In this particular take on the subject, a woman with memory problems--a wife who cannot retain the previous day's memories (or any long term memory at all) upon waking each morning--struggles to figure out who she is, what exactly happened to her, and perhaps most importantly, who she can trust.
Fair enough. There is some interesting potential here.
But then that plot line replays for three-quarters of the book! I literally found myself at 80% on my Kindle before I felt like the plot might be finally moving somewhere toward a revelation that was looming for several hundred pages. The first few times Watson's protagonist wakes up and has to reread her journal to remember who she is and what happened, it's mildly interesting. (NOTE: nothing has actually happened to her in these captured pages, other than remembering who she is, who her husband is, and who her doctor is). After this daily replay for a few hundred pages, it's time for the hangman's noose.
After all that monotony, however, I thought "based on all the reviews, something really exciting (read: THRILLING) must happen soon". I mean, the last 20% should knock our socks off, right? Nah. Anyone who couldn't figure out the "twist" by then needs to put away the sedatives.
I wanted to love this book. Seeing Dennis Lehane's (much promoted) single line of praise "Exceptional...it left my nerves jangling for hours after I read the last page." really whetted my appetite.
Really, Dennis? I am a big Lehane fan; as I said, his endorsement was already enough for me. But there is NOTHING in this novel to make your nerves jangle (unless it is the futile frustration that you will never get those hours back again).
For the reviewers (particularly the Top Reviewers who loved the book, I apologize. I am sorry you require so little from a storyline. Save your money, dear readers; here's 200+ pages of the plot:
Write new things in the journal, question your husband's honesty, question what really happened to you, talk these things over with your doctor. Rinse. Repeat.
Then, with less than 20% to go, prepare to discover what you should have pretty much known all along. Not frightening, not harrowing, not all that surprising. And certainly not thrilling.
Certainly nothing over which to jangle any nerves.
on November 16, 2011
Based on the rave reviews, I had high hopes for this book. And the first dozen pages didn't disappoint. Christine wakes with no memory of the last 20 years, still thinking she's a college student who went home with new man after a wild night out. Only when she looks at her 40-year-old self in his bathroom mirror does she really start to panic. It's a nicely written scene.
And then everything goes to hell. The next 200 pages are just plain tedious -- and ridiculous. Every day Christine goes through the same routine ("who is this man in bed beside me?!"): discovering that she has lost half her life and is married to a man she does not know. Naturally she accepts this after the first ten minutes so that her husband can leave her to go to his office. The fact that she has the memory of a goldfish and is basically unequipped to help herself in any way seems not to matter. After that Christine gets a daily call from a psychologist on a cell phone in her purse that she somehow knows about (and knows how to use, despite never having seen one before) and is directed to a secret journal that she decides (over and over, every day) not to tell her husband about.
It's utterly ridiculous, incredibly tedious, and completely predictable. Whoever got Dennis Lehane to contribute the quote "Exceptional...left my nerves jangling" is either an absolute genius or the world's greatest blackmailer.
on April 30, 2011
In this well-written "thriller", Christine wakes up every day unsure of who she is, unable to believe she is the middle-aged woman in the mirror. She can't remember her husband or the life they led together. She can't remember anything. Eventually she finds a journal and learns she has been seeking answers and then the book builds to an interesting climax that I won't reveal here.
This story is solid and engaging, but I just never got the spine-tingling thrill I had expected. It was an interesting read, and I did enjoy it, but the lack of real tension as the book moved towarded the big denouement made it easy to put down when interrupted. I was left feeling vaguely let down and dissatisfied which is why I'm only giving it 3.5 stars.
on September 14, 2011
I purchased this "psychological thriller" on Kindle. What a mess... and a waste of time. I did not find this book to be as inventive and thrilling as the majority of reviewers on Amazon. Instead, I found it to be unrealistic, predictable, and oh-so-boring.
Just a few things (off the top of my head) that were awfully irksome and distracting about this allegedly thrilling ride: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT--MOVE ON TO THE NEXT REVIEW IF YOU PLAN TO READ THIS NOVEL
1- I just could not in my mind suspend the norms of human nature and human interaction sufficient to go along with what the author was selling. Who wakes up beliving they are 20-something, learns they are actually 50-something, married, the victim of an accident, etc., and THEN does anything other than shut down for the remainder of the day? The protagonist in this book; that's who. Daily -- she's learning and re-learning to use cell phones when they did not exist as far as she can remember. She's meeting strangers -- sometimes 2 in a day. She's bringing herself to go on trips and considering having sex with someone who is basically a stranger.
2- More on the unbelievable aspect of the book: COME ON. She's reading an increasingly lengthy journal jam packed with really important, painful, and shocking details about her life daily? And then she's turning around and writing what amounts to a short story with perfect grammar, every single day for weeks?
3- Even more... Her incredibly loving husband who would do anything for her decides not to check in on her for months, allowing a psychopath to play house with her during that time. The son doesn't give a rat's arse either for a few months. But of course they will stand by their wife and mother respectively in the end and they will live happily ever after.
4- She remembers one image of Claire or Adam and she knows exactly who they are and how she feels about them. Claire is decidly her best friend after that one memory about the party, for example. In contrast, she remembers a detailed interlude with the fake "Ben" in her old home... yet she conveniently does not remember that she is TERRIFIED TO DEATH OF HIM.
5- Super lazy ending. The laziest I have read in a long time. In the last 30 pages I believe we have a shocking revelation, a fight to the death, a rescue, reconcilliation, and a recap of what was happening in the world outside of the main character's perspective. Oh yea; and the main character falls asleep in the end at peace with her new life. Barf.
I could go on and on... Really I could.
on August 30, 2011
I absolutely hated this book. Not one of the characters was believable. I kept reading because I thought I'd missed something, due to the rave reviews.
The story was boring and tedious, the outcome anti-climatic and silly, and it was five times longer than it had to be. I couldn't wait for her to go back to sleep.
When I started hearing about this book, I thought, "Wait, isn't that just like Memento? And 50 First Dates?"
I gave into the hype that this story was gripping and original and read it anyway.
Well, I'm here to tell you it's neither of those things.
The writing is kind of awful. This is partly because it's told in first-person and the main character (I can't even remember her name - this is how dull both she and the book are) isn't very smart, but it also seems that S.J. Watson is just not a very good writer. The sentences are short and repetitive and exhausting, and since you have to live through her waking up every day and going through the same discoveries, some interesting writing might have taken the edge off.
Now, if you haven't seen Memento or 50 First Dates, the idea of someone who loses their memory every night might seem exciting and new. However, if you have, you're likely going to be turning the pages in irritation that someone who took a great idea and did a mediocre job of it is getting credit for being original.
It's also painfully obvious that S.J. Watson is a man writing as a woman, and I kind of wondered whether any woman had read this book before it was published, because it didn't read like a woman's voice at all, especially when she talks about her body (there's a fun scene where she refers to how aware she is of her breasts because they are moving around separately from her body - huh?).
Do yourself a favor and go watch Memento. You'll be much happier, and your money will be going to someone talented.
on June 29, 2011
I know I'm in a perilously small minority in panning this book, but ...
I'm perfectly willing to submit to a writer's request to suspend reality if it makes sense to do so in the context of the work -- say, when reading Tolkien or Poe or Vonnegut, or Marvel Comics for that matter.
But this novel requires the reader to suspend all sense of reality in a situation that supposedly is rooted in reality. And that just doesn't work.
The idea that the protagonist, day after day, wakes up in a strange bed with a strange man, not knowing who she is, and, day after day, is resigned to the situation in an hour or two, and responding with minimal sense of fear, panic and confusion, is simply unsupportable. It defies most standards of human behavior and emotion.
We're to believe that, in this situation, she agrees to dash off to meet with strangers who call her on the telephone? That she can write page after page of seamless prose in her diary in mere minutes, while huddled on her knees at a bedroom closet door, pencil in hand? Please. There are scores of other contradictions and illogic, but space precludes addressing them all.
I allowed a second star out of mercy, recognizing that the author had at least created a compelling (if not exactly original) scenario, no matter how poorly it was executed.