Book review: Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano

(image courtesy Penguin Australia)

Have you ever had one of those friends who found themselves a new religion or transformative way of thinking, one so powerful that it completely changed and profoundly the way they approached life that they talked about nothing else every time you saw them?

Even worse, so enthusiastic was their new-found devotion and so complete their immersion in their shiny new dogma that they sounded like a religious text sprung to repetitive life, its cliches and well-worn phrases sounding desperately tired and obvious to you but fresh as a life-changing daisy to their newly-born again ears?

If so, you will find a great deal to recognise (and run from if you have any good sense) in Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano which, all good intentions aside for clearly the author believes passionately in the message contained within, reads like that same friend rabbiting on and on with ceaseless conviction for 234 interminable pages.

Of course, just like your friend, and even more so with a book which doesn’t get hurt when you close the pages and consign to the “Blessedly Not Finished” pile (unlike your friend who would likely not take that kind of shutdown well at all), Girodano’s book is unable to stop itself from going far beyond simply enunciating the glories of a treasured belief system to thumping you over the head with it in such a way that actual quite-sensible advice begins to sound like a zealot on a verbally-runaway high.

“What? Was I supposed to send him an advance warning? Were there procedural bottlenecks in the art of household happiness, then? His tepid response really pissed me off. I wanted him to share my enthusiasm, to help me. Why did he always behave like a spectator in our married life? I felt like shaking him, telling him how urgent it was for us to change things, that his passivity was not only stifling me but eating away at my feelings for him just as surely as waves eat at a cliff’s edge.” (P. 46)

Camille is the new zealotous believer in this story, a woman who, returning from a sales trip for work from somewhere outside of Paris, finds herself with a blown tire and ruined car, forcing her to seek sanctuary in a nearby house in which lives the kind and helpful Claude and his wife.

Like any good Samaritan, Claude gets thirty-something Camille back on her way, one which at that point also includes a disinterested husband Sebastien, argumentative 10-year-old son Adrien, a domineering, unsupportive, a boss who doesn’t value her and an aching sense life has lots its meaning and purpose, but not before handing her his business card which proclaims his to be a “Routinologist” or breaker and re-builder of tired life routines.

So good, so far.

After all, who of us, at a certain age, haven’t found ourselves a little, or a lot, lost and uncertain about life, all the bright and shiny possibilities of our twenties suddenly dull and broken, the promise long since exhausted by the ups and downs and contrary twists-and-turns of life?

Raphaëlle Giordano (image courtesy Penguin Australia)

So, at first, when Claude challenges Camille to change her negative patterns of thought, to re-evaluate what it is she wants from life and to keep pushing herself on a journey that will totally transform her limping-along life, it sounds all rather lovely and uplifting.

You want to change your life no doubt, Camille does so and who can argue with such lofty, exciting aspirations such as those that Claude dangles in front of her his charge, from whom he mysteriously wants no payment?

The issue, really, lies less in the sentiments expressed, though they are done in such a way that it sounds like a tired recitation of every glib positivity exhortation in the book, leaving you feeling like you’re trapped without hope of escape in a neverending Tony Robbins echo chamber, than with the way they are expressed. (Perhaps the translation from the French is the problem, though I suspect that isn’t the problem; zealotry likely sounds tired and overdone in any language.)

With the narrative totally in service to the philosophy, and not vice-versa, the story clunks along like the broken car which starts Camille on her supposedly-transformative journey, each character sounding less like a person than a robotic voice spruiking some tired posivity statement or another.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the ideas behind much of it but when it’s delivered with the all the grace and elegance of a demented street preacher haranguing you with a megaphone from his fruitbox perch, you soon tire of its exhortations to radically re-model your life.

“‘Claude? His name is Claude? And what does he do?’
‘He’s a … routinologist.’
‘It’s a new approach to personal development. It’s very effective,’ I said, trying to justify myself.
‘It sounds like nonsense,’ she retorted immediately.
‘You know you have to be careful … there are so many charlatans about these days. They say they’ll make your dreams come true and give you a better life, but once you’re hooked …’
I knew she’d say that.” (P. 175)

Even more problematic is the fact that the transformations that litter the book like confetti at a rally for the over-excitable fall to the floor with a dull thud, so quick and utterly complete are they, with none of the flaws and inconsistencies that plague anyone when they’re trying something new.

Nothing feels or sounds real, there is no lead-up, no bumps or obstacles along the road, no sense that here are people with good intentions finding themselves beset with issues aplenty along their road to Blissville.

Camille whines and vents a great deal, it is true, but even these moments of disbelief are shut down mere paragraphs or pages later by a euphoric turnaround that renders even the small, emergent shoots of reality breaking through, inert and lifeless in emotionally-disaffecting short order.

Estrangement from her dad? Taken care of in mere paragraphs? Problems with her mum? She’s her greatest supporter by the end, not to mention back to being super-great friends with her ex who left alone to raise her daughter with little-to-no help. Marriage to her husband moribund? He may kick back a little but is soon onboard the good ship Zealotry? Problems raising her son? He’s secretly a good kid, no, a great one, who is suddenly the best thing since Shirley Temple, and all it takes is a board game and a delicious dinner.

There’s nothing wrong with telling a story where life changes for the better – indeed in our present benighted age, some positive storytelling goes a long way – and we could all do with some re-evaluation and change to our less-than-perfect lives, but Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One delivers its story with such a shrill disregard for the realities of life and for the rewardingly-messy business of a emotionally-evocative character journey, and such a remorseless need to Encourage You to be BETTER, that each of its too-quickly-arrived-at positive changes, fall off you like you’re made of Teflon.

The end result is a story that goes everywhere but feels like it has gone nowhere, so little emotional impact does it leave, and a series of possibly life-changing messages that might have made some impact, though I doubt it, if only they had been made to feel like something that could meaningfully alter the lives of real people.

As it is, they fall to the existential floor without remark, leaving the reader no better off, either from a life perspective or as that of a reader looking for a satisfying story, which is, you have to assume not what Giordano wants (her breathlessly upbeat invocation at the start of the novel would indicate that) but which she, in her haste to dispense her gospel of glorious change, fails to deliver, leaving your only real option to walk off and pretend, like the ranty street preacher far behind you, that the book never existed at all.

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