Josie Silver's debut, One Day in December, was a bit of a phenomenon: after earning an endorsement from Reese Witherspoon's book club, it shot up the bestseller lists and was published in 31 languages. It was actually the 13th book for author Jo Pigworth, who also writes under the name Kat French. Now she's back with her second title as Josie Silver, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird, which boasts an intriguing premise.
Following the tragic death of her fiancé Freddie, a devastated Lydia attempts to tackle her insomnia by joining the clinical trial for a new sleeping pill. Yet whenever she takes one of the little pink pills, she wakes up in an alternate reality, in which her beloved partner of 14 years is still very much alive.
Lydia is instantly endearing, and the Sliding Doors-style plot is promising, though Silver falters a bit in establishing these parallel worlds, using chapter headings to denote when Lydia is "awake" and "asleep". The transitions can become muddled, and the dream episodes soon grow repetitive. It has the effect of the story feeling disjointed and slow-moving, although grief itself can be a lot like that.
The real world, meanwhile, starts to feel like a "waiting room", as Lydia's waking life revolves around her visits to Freddie. "The siren call of the pill was too loud, too persuasive to ignore," she says, after snapping at her mam and ditching her sister in favour of another pill.
The novel spans nearly two years, and the months-long jumps in narrative correspond to notable gaps in character development. We see Lydia - who, in an almost fantastical turn, owns her own house at age 27 - return to work, support her sister through pregnancy and resume her friendship with Freddie's best friend, Jonah. But these events don't explain her behaviour in her dream world, where she realises she doesn't fit in as easily as she once might. Lydia gradually discovers that her dream life isn't always so dreamy, such as when she arrives to find Freddie has taken her to a dreaded gym session, or when she notices she's wearing a "Conservative-candidate black dress" instead of her usual boho clothes.
"I'm not that woman any more," she tells us. "I've been through the worst thing life could possibly throw at me, I've had to find strength I didn't know I had, and it's changed me. I'm not the same person now."
To our knowledge, however, she hasn't really changed that much, other than swapping in some new cushions on Freddie's favourite chair. It feels like we're missing context, that Silver hasn't done enough to illustrate in what ways Lydia has changed, and we must accept the stock narrative that grief has made her stronger.
This extends to the romantic storyline - a few more beats along the way could have made the conclusion a lot more satisfying. Instead, their connection develops largely off the page, and again Silver tells rather than shows us that they're falling in love.
While the fantasy and romance elements may be flawed, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird excels as a portrait of grief and our rose-tinted view of the past. "The thing about losing the love of your life is that you get to make up what would have happened afterwards," Lydia observes. "You're entitled to dream all of your tomorrows would have been perfect because you loved them so much, you're allowed to flex and bend every situation in your head so they'd say and do all the right things."
Luckily, she has her loving family and her colleagues at the town hall to rally round her, and their tender exchanges bring lightness to the darker moments. This novel is heavier and sadder than its predecessor, yet the ending is hopeful, lending a heartwarming touch to a bittersweet story that is very nearly excellent.