Comparative Connie Willis

So I have a very mixed reaction to Connie Willis. I was first introduced to her writings about a year ago with “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I was amazed. It quickly became, and still is, one of my favorite books. I’ve reread it twice since then. Its a light-hearted story set about 50 years in an alternate future where time travel has been invented, but its pretty much useless to everyone because you can’t take anything from the past, you can take anything to the past, and its physically impossible to change the order of events. So the only people who use time travel are historians, who go back in time to study and record events in detail. Enter Ned and Verity, two scholars from Oxford, who find themselves together in the Victorian age. Ned is hiding from a rich patron of the history department who needs him to find an artifact from the past, and she wont take no for an answer. Verity is worried that she has somehow accidentally changed the future by saving the life of a cat. And so they’re thrown into a hilarious series of events that witness the first jumble sale, the ridiculousness rules of victorian love stories, and the ugliest statue ever to have been created. Willis also pays homage to a classic of the time, “Three Men in a Boat,” and her story is full of references to other literatures of the times, Alice in Wonderland, and the mystery novels that were just becoming popular and would eventually pave the way for Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. (Infact, it was this book that first got me reading the Lord Peter Wimsey series, for which I am eternally greatful.)

That December, Blackout and All Clear had just been released and I was ecstatic. It was that great feeling you get when you are introduced to an author, and you love them, and it turns out they’ve written tons of books you get to go catch up on, and they’re even writing more books, and you know you wont run out of things to read for a long time. So it was with happy anticipation that the day after Christmas I curled up under a blanket and opened Blackout….

One hundred pages later I was into the story, but not enthralled. Two hundred pages later, I was bored. Three hundred pages later, I was bored and annoyed. Eventually I made it to the end of Blackout, but I was not impressed. Why had this gloroius author failed me so badly? How could she do this, to me, personally?! Where were the silly time-travel hijinks? Where were the witty observations? The unlikely heros, the mystery to solve, the comedy of errors, all were missing! Sure, I expected more dramatic and serious book, it was set during World War I, there’s only so much comedy you can create. But I still expected a coherent and interesting plot. I’d read 512 pages, and the only thing that’d happened was to get three historians lost in London during the blitz. They coudln’t find the way out, and they couldn’t find eachother, and they spent every one of those pages saying “its ok, Mr. Dunworthy will find me eventually, all I have to do is this…” The reader has spent those 512 pages knowing that they’re all within a couple miles of eacother, and they’ve all almost run into eachother three or four times, but they’ve just narrowly missed eachother. A tragedy of errors you could call it. In a lighter book, it’d be amusing, but in this situation it just feels sad, and slow, and, well, annoying. And it sure doesn’t advance the plot at all.

I almost didn’t pick up All Clear, but in the end I decided to give Willis another chance. I rationalized it by saying she intended the story to follow the pace of the war. Long periods of boredom interspersed with terror and drama. Slow to start, full of hope in the beginning, eventually giving way to exaustion and despair. Well… Yes, that’s about how my emotions went during the readings of All Clear. Not because I felt worry for the characters, or was invested in the story. But just because I eventually resigned myself to the fact that nothing I wanted to happen was ever going to happen. I wont even mention the ending. I like to pretend that the final two chapters didn’t actually happen.

Now, nearly a year later, I finally picked up her previous novel “Doomsday Book.” I had sort of decided that “To Say Nothing of the Dog” was mostly a fluke, and I didn’t actually like Connie Willis at all. Yes, Doomsday Book had won all sorts of awards, and everyone loved it. But then again, Blackout and All Clear won all sorts of awards too… But I was bored, and it had been sitting on my shelf for awhile now, and I thought, why not, just one more try. And lo and behold I enjoyed it! Not with the same love I still feel for Dog, but it was a good book. I could see why people liked it. And then I realized, wait, it has the exact same plot as Blackout and All Clear… Lonely historian accidentally trapped during the beginning of the Black Plague in Englang. In danger, but unable to return. Circumstances in Oxford keeping them from rescuing her. Connie Willis just did the lazy author thing, she just rewrote Doomsday Book, made it three times as long (but didn’t actually add anything to the plot) and set it during a revered and honored time in history hoping to get more awards for it.

And it worked. Getting the awards for Blackout and All Clear, I mean. I still don’t believe the novels deserved them. I think she needed an editor to stand up to her, hand her a whole package of red pens, and tell her to get to work cutting out about 500 pages, and make it into one novel. Then, I might have enjoyed it.

I think Connie Willis sees that more books get awards for being heart-felt dramas than get for being light-hearted comedies. But her skills really truly lie in the happy endings, and she needs to realize that that doesn’t make a book less important. Her voice with Dog was amazing, and perfect. Her characters well-rounded, and likable, and believable. Definitely not the case with Blackout/All Clear, and even a little shakey on Doomsday. Its a lesson I wish all authors would learn.

More pages does not equal a better book! Dramas and tragedies are not automatically more important than happy endings and comedies. Silliness does not decrease the long-term value of a story!

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