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REVIEW: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Dear Mr. Watson,

Your first novel, a psychological thriller titled Before I Go to Sleep, has garnered considerable attention. The cover of my advanced reader’s edition proclaims that rights have been sold in over thirty countries, and movie rights sold to acclaimed director Ridley Scott. There are blurbs from Tess Gerritsen and Dennis Lehane calling it “Quite simply the best debut I’ve ever read,” and “Exceptional,” respectively.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. WatsonFor these reasons, I approached Before I Go to Sleep with high expectations, and while I can’t say that it was badly written, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, either.

Before I Go to Sleep opens in present day England when its narrator, Christine Lucas, wakes up. Christine finds herself lying next to a middle-aged man whom she doesn’t recognize. The man is wearing a wedding ring and Christine is revolted by the realization she must have slept with a married man, and not even in a hotel room, but in his and his wife’s home.

But when she goes to the bathroom and sees herself in the mirror, Christine is further shocked to realize that she herself is middle-aged, and she too wears a wedding band. Christine isn’t the twenty-something she thought she was, but a woman in her late forties: a woman with amnesia.

After seeing herself in photographs on the wall, pictured with the man beside whom she’d woken, Christine confronts the sleeping man – her husband, Ben. “You seem to be able to retain information while you’re awake,” Ben tells her. “But then, when you sleep, most of it goes.”

After Ben leaves to go to work, Christine receives a telephone call from a man named Dr. Nash. Dr. Nash tells Christine that they have been meeting to work together on trying to restore her memories. Although initially suspicious, Christine allows Dr. Nash to make a house call. They go to a nearby park and it is there that Dr. Nash explains to Christine that she has been keeping a journal as part of her treatment.

Dr. Nash says that when they began working together, Christine decided not to confide in Ben about their work. She did not want to raise her husband’s hopes until she and Dr. Nash saw measurable improvement in her condition. Dr. Nash gives Christine the journal, which she had given to him to read.

When she returns home she is stunned to see that on the journal’s front page she has written “DON’T TRUST BEN.”

Before I Go to Sleep is divided into three parts. The brief Part I which I have just summarized, is narrated in first person present tense. Part II, the longest section, comprised of Christine’s journal, is written in first person past tense. The book’s last quarter takes place after Christine has read the journal, and since it includes the ending, I probably should say no more about it.

Christine’s journal shows how Christine begins each day with little memory of the past twenty or so years of her life. Some days she remembers a bit, others she is lost in a mist. But her journal is Christine’s tether to reality, to the past, to the future, to the passage of time. Each day Dr. Nash calls her and reminds her where it is hidden, and most days Christine reads it and records the events of that day.

Eventually a picture emerges: Ben, Christine’s husband and caretaker, isn’t being entirely honest with Christine. He omits certain details when he tells her of their past, and as her therapy starts working and Christine begins to recall bits and pieces of that past, she grows more and more troubled by Ben’s omissions.

Is the feeling that tells Christine not to trust Ben paranoia, or is Christine’s gut sending her a message worth heeding? Is Ben a loving husband leaving out the most painful details of Christine’s past so as not to cause her to relive past traumas day after day, or does he have a more sinister motive?

There are only a handful of characters in Before I Go to Sleep. For most of the novel, Christine’s only recurrent contacts are Ben and Dr. Nash, and she rarely leaves the house she shares with Ben. That aspect of the book created a claustrophobic feeling in me, one that served to show how confined Christine’s world has become since her memory loss. In contrast, Christine’s rare flashbacks showed that she once led a much fuller and larger life.

Christine’s narration gives the reader an unusual depth of insight into how awful it must be to wake up each day with no memories of the previous day. The context of the novel gives many reasons to sympathize with Christine, but although I felt sorry for her, I did not fully warm to her.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate the reasons for this. It may have been because her narration was so matter of fact. It may have been because there was almost nothing glamorous or romantic in her life. Or it may have been because her story was so discomfiting and disturbing.

Because of all of the above, I didn’t feel a deep connection with Christine, and yet, the book evoked dread in me. Dread not just for what might happen to her, but dread for what had already happened to her. The book was not just a thriller, but also a meditation on the nature of memory – how it defines us, and how much we depend on it.

Despite the psychological acuity in the writing, or perhaps because of it, I did not enjoy reading the book. In fact, whereas some other readers couldn’t put it down, I found it difficult to pick it back up. There have been psychological thrillers I’ve loved, but the older I get, the harder it becomes for me to read about vulnerable characters in jeopardy. Christine was acutely vulnerable, and reading about her made me feel uneasy to an uncomfortable degree.

Grading this book is tough, because again, I don’t feel that the writing was bad. The prose was better than average and the characterization well done. The characters felt real to me, and although you are a male author, Christine felt authentically female. There was a twist that I didn’t anticipate, and yet, when the truth was revealed, I saw that clues had been there all along.

Still, reading this book was not an enjoyable experience, and I know I will not read it again. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

20 Comments

  1. Scraps
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 15:46:07

    Thanks for this review.

    The book’s plot is actually very similar to the premise of a movie from 2000 called Momento. This man loses his memories every few hours but he tattoos his body with hints, clues, and information. The entire movie is a series of present day moments and flash backs. I couldn’t stand it. LOL Sounds like this would not be a book I would enjoy either.

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  2. Alison Kent
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 16:06:38

    I experienced the same dread but I loved it. Every word. Couldn’t read fast enough and was anxious for the end. I had guessed part of the twist, but not all of it, and I thought the ending was a perfect fit. But, yes, the book was an uncomfortable read. I still gobbled it up and would give it an A- or B+.

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  3. Janine
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 16:07:38

    @Scraps: I’ve actually seen (and liked) Memento. Beyond the premise, I don’t actually think they are that similar. Memento was faster paced and action oriented. This book is more slow and thoughtful. Also, the main character was female in this book, and her concerns were concerns that many women would share. Things like why hadn’t she had children, memories of going to a party with her best friend, and wondering what her marriage was like. And if memory serves (unintended pun), in Memento the protagonist could hardly recall anything from his past, while in Before I Go to Sleep Christine did eventually begin to recall some things.

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  4. Janine
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 16:11:15

    @Alison Kent: I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I know a lot of people loved it and I wish I had too. That’s part of why I tried to make it clear in my review that I didn’t think the writing was bad. I also guessed part of the twist, but didn’t see the rest coming at all.

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  5. LG
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 16:11:46

    @Scraps: The first thing I thought of was Memento, too, although, unlike you, I enjoyed Memento. Maybe I’d like this, too, or maybe it’d just have a “been there, done that” feeling after having seen Memento. I don’t know, but I’ll keep this in mind as something to try.

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  6. sarah mayberry
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 18:42:23

    I always think it’s really interesting when we have really visceral responses to writing/stories. Given the emotions you experienced, it’s almost as though the writer was “too” successful in drawing you into the world he’d created. This sounds like a really interesting premise and I can see why Scott would think it would make a good thriller movie. I wonder who will play the heroine – any suggestions?

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  7. Janine
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 18:53:53

    @sarah mayberry: Yes, it certainly shows an effectiveness to Watson’s writing that I felt such strong emotions while reading.

    I was thinking about the casting of a movie too, since I love some of Ridley Scott’s films (Thelma and Louise is probably my favorite of his movies). My personal top choices of actresses I would want to see in the role of Christine would be Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton. I can think of other actresses who might be able to pull off the role, but they are American: Mary McDonnell and Michelle Pfeiffer. I don’t know who I would cast as Ben, but for the role of Christine’s best friend, I kept thinking of Julianne Moore.

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  8. sarah mayberry
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 19:23:06

    Nice casting! I’m getting a strong sense of the character from the Cate and Tilda suggestions. I have loved Tilda with an abiding passion since falling in love with the Sally Potter movie Orlando many years ago. It was very early on in Tilda’s career, but she was awesome. And God she was good in Michael Clayton. As for Cate… well, it’s probably enough to say she inspired me to buy very expensive face cream which, sadly, didn’t not give me her complexion!

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  9. Janine
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 20:28:39

    @sarah mayberry: Other readers might interpret the character differently and cast different actresses, or not cast anyone at all. I often avoid book trailers myself because I don’t like to have a visual image of the character to interfere with the way I imagine them.

    I was young when I saw Orlando (the first time it was in theaters) and I thought it was long and boring, but Swinton did act the part well. I also really liked her a movie called The Deep End. And yes, she was good in Michael Clayton too.

    Cate Blanchett is also an excellent actress as well as beautiful. I think the role of Christine requires versatility because we see a very different Christine in some of her memories of her life before the memory loss. If the movie gets made, it will be very interesting to see who Ridley Scott casts.

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  10. Susan/DC
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 20:46:02

    To go off topic, I too liked Tilda Swinton very much in “The Deep End”. Also thought Goran Visnjic did an excellent job with his role.

    A very early Swinton role is in “Caravaggio”. It’s quite weird but quite compelling, and, as an added bonus, it’s got a young and swoon-worthy Sean Bean.

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  11. Keishon
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:10:03

    I started to buy this book but realized the character suffered from amnesia or some form of it. On top of that, I think the structure of the book wouldn’t suit me either (writing in a journal and so forth). Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers and he almost never gives blurbs on books so I was tempted to buy this one – for all of one minute.

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  12. Alison Kent
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:13:54

    @Keishon: I bought it without knowing anything because of the Lehane blurb! And the journal writing doesn’t come across as … journal writing. It’s written in scene form as it happens, and Christine records it like that so it’s not offputting as a letter might be. What I love is in the credits she acknowledges a real life sufferer of this sort of true (not romance novel *g*) amnesia. So heartbreaking, and yet fascinating.

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  13. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:33:23

    @Keishon: Yeah, as Alison says, it’s based on actual cases in real life although I didn’t see that mentioned in my ARC but rather on the author’s site. I also agree with the way Alison described the journal but then I also don’t mind reading journals in books. But I didn’t enjoy the book and I don’t know whether you would. It is a suspense novel but it felt more like a character study to me.

    @Alison Kent:

    What I love is in the credits she acknowledges

    The author is actually male. There are pictures of him here. But I can see why you thought it was a female author — he writes a woman’s voice so very well.

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  14. Keishon
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:25:35

    @Alison Kent: @Janine: I am reconsidering then and will download a sample. Thanks!

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  15. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:56:24

    @Keishon: Samples are the way to go. They have saved me so much $$$.

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  16. Marianne McA
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:46:58

    Worth mentioning, perhaps, that BBC radio is serialising this at the minute in it’s ‘Book at Beachtime’ slot, and it’s currently available to listen to on BBC iplayer.
    (And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure who’ll be able listen to that – I’ve a feeling I was told that people from countries other than the UK can use iplayer for radio programmes, though not for TV output, but I don’t know for sure.)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0125j6y/Book_at_Beachtime_SJ_Watson_Before_I_Go_To_Sleep_Episode_1/

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  17. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:51:52

    @Marianne McA: I didn’t know about this, but yes, very much worth mentioning! Thank you for letting us know.

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  18. Nancy
    Nov 01, 2011 @ 15:42:57

    Couldn,t put it down. Best thing I,ve read in a while.Don,t let anyone tell you otherwise. It was outside the box. Shows because so called critics could not pidgeon hole it. Would make an amazing movie!

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