One of my favourite authors is Connie Willis. Her books are clever, witty, cunning, and a great deal of fun. She also writes romance beautifully, although in an understated way which somehow makes it all the more beautifully romantic.
I don't remember the first Willis book I read, but it was To Say Nothing of the Dog that charmed me into ensuring I got everything she ever published. The Doomsday Book was incomparable, and Blackout/All Clear is probably the most romantic story I've ever read, despite the hero and heroine being mostly apart. Infact, elements of it inspired Deep in the Far Away.
So I was very excited to get Willis' latest book, Crosstalk, and very disappointed when the first two or three chapters left me exhausted and frustrated. They were too much. Too frantic. Too many people imposing on the heroine, so that it was hard to get a sense of her actual character at all.
However, the book is about the over-connection our society has, not only with social media but also gossip and an eroding respect for others' privacy. At the same time, all this connection is not actually bringing us authentically closer to each other or to our own selves. This is what Willis skillfully showed in those early chapters, made me experience her message. Then the story's pace slowed somewhat, and I was hooked. The kind of hooked where you only put the book down twice : firstly when its deep night and you can not keep your eyes open a moment longer, and secondly when you have finished it.
One of the things I like best about Willis is that her characters are ordinary people who have random thoughts, and do purposeless things, and not every scene is tied in with the theme or the plot - although inevitably everything that happens proves meaningful to the characters themselves. Some people find this frustrating, but to me it is honest and makes her stories endearing. I also know that, while I can't trust her to be giving me valuable plot information with every scene, I can absolutely trust her with my heart. Those random little tales and moments she throws in for no apparent reason become in-jokes between the characters, or memories they tenderly share, and it's magical to be a part of that. It also demonstrates how true connections form between people.
I will always read any Connie Willis book, even when it initially puts me off. I know she will capture me, fascinate me, and make me fall in love. And she did it again with Crosstalk. Yes, the book has flaws*. It is an exhausting read unless you are able to skim-and-comprehend and not get too bogged down. Many people hate it, and many people love it - which seems typical for a Willis book. I happened to love it despite the flaws. I particularly recommend it for empaths, who will almost certainly be nodding their heads the whole way through (and who may finally understand just why they grieve so deeply the loss of quiet, computer-free libraries.) I have walked into the fire for some people, and never before found my experience described quite as sympathetically as Willis does.
image by jessie wilcox smith
* One of the complaints I've read about Crosstalk is that the heroine has no agency until the end, and keeps having to be rescued. It really disturbs me that heroines these days need to be capable of self-rescue all the time. The best stories are about people's weaknesses, and about how their relationships with others either exacerbates or repairs those weaknesses. Of course we shouldn't believe all women are inherently powerless and need to be saved by a man. But if we only have stories in which the characters are strong and capable, then where is the relatability? The character development? I was always taught that a story is about how a character gains true agency over their experiences through trial, relationship, and growth.