Book Review

Passage by Connie Willis


Title: Passage
Author: Connie Willis
Publication Info: Bantam Books 2001
ISBN: 0-553-58051-5
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book Passage This is a review of Passage, with spoilers whited out at the end.  I have wracked my brain about how to get this content from my interview with Connie Willis to Passage fans without wrecking the book for everyone who hasn’t read it yet. 

The interview stuff is good, and I want fans to get to see it – so if you haven’t read the book, PLEASE don’t read the spoilers, and if you have read the book, PLEASE don’t include spoilers in the comments.  Thank you!

Connie Willis delights in exploring different genres through the medium of speculative fiction.  For example, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a light-hearted Victorian time travelling romantic comedy.  Doomsday Book is way on the other end of the emotional spectrum, as it involves heaps of people dying of the Black Death.  So when you pick up a Connie Willis book, you could be getting some version of historical fiction, or light-hearted romance, or utter hilarity, or abject heartbreak – or you could get Passage, which defies category.

Passage is one of my favorite books, but if I had known what it was about when I picked it up, I never would have read it.  There’s a child in peril, which is a topic that gives me horrible anxiety attacks.  The kid, who defies plot moppet status by being awesome in surprising ways, copes with her chronic and possibly terminal illness by reading about disasters.  This means there’s a lot of trivia about disasters – cue hours of my time compulsively researching horrible things on Wikipedia while having more anxiety attacks.  And bad things happen, so I had anxiety attacks about that.  My normal mode of being is to rigorously avoid books that cause me anxiety, as I have enough of that in my daily life. 

But to my amazement, this book ended up being incredibly affirming for me in terms of what it means to be alive, and how we help other people, and how we figure things out about the world.    I love this book so much that I want to press a copy of it into the hands of everyone I meet.  If I could find a way to give it a higher grade than an A+, I would.  I love the characters, the trivia, the muddled tone of tyring to figure something out that you can't quite peice together.  I love the network of people and the sense of a family being created.  Did I mention how devoted I am to the characters?  And above all, I love it because Passage  makes me feel hopeful.  It makes me believe in human decency, and it makes me believe in the victory of small things.  I love how it balances hope and a sense of tough reality.  I love it all.

It’s hard to describe Passage in in detail without ruining it.  It deals with the efforts of a scientist, Joanna, to study near death experiences.  She is trying to study these experiences using careful scientific method, and she is constantly thwarted by another “researcher” who likes to get to her potential interviewees first and ask them leading questions like, “There was a tunnel, wasn’t there?  And a warm light?  And you felt safe, didn’t you?  Of course you did!”

So what can I tell you without messing up your reading experience?  I can tell you that the book is not a romance novel, but there is romance in it.  I can also tell you that your feelings about the end of the book will depend on how you interpret the ending and how willing you are to accept happiness that falls in unexpected and incomplete ways.  I can tell you that you will get upset and I hope that, like me, you will also feel like a stronger, better person when the book is over.  When I'm going through a hard time and I need to laugh, I read To Say Nothing of the Dog.  When I'm going through a hard time and I need to know that there is meaning and hope and kindness in the face of tragedy, I go to Passage.

Passage is a polarizing book.  Here are a few reasons that Passage has some detractors:

• If you think, “Oh, here’s some more light comedy from that person who wrote the time travelling Victorian romance”  or if you go into the book expecting it to be a romance novel in any way, you will be mightily off-put by the fact that this book, while it has some humor and some romance, is tough emotional going.

• Some people don’t like the pacing of the book.  Joanna is trying to solve a mystery by chasing down leads that seem to be dead ends, and remembering half-forgotten things, and fumbling for the clue that will make things clear to her, and trying to reach people who never answer the phone.  While she’s mentally running around in circles, she’s also physically running around in circles because the hospital where she works has a nightmarish floor plan, a cafeteria that is never open, and whole wings that are shut down due to construction.  Some people dismiss this so cavalierly that I think they are missing the point.  The frustration, the feeling of running in circles – that’s part of the process and point of the book, and personally I think it’s done wonderfully well.  But I do think it’s perfectly valid to say that you get the point that the author is making, but you still don’t enjoy reading about it.

• If you are really into people like Sylvia Browne and John Edward, than I’m sure you’ll find this book deeply offensive.

When I interviewed Connie Willis at the Nebula Awards, she told me a lot of stuff about writing Passage.  Some of what she told me is general enough that it’s all there in the interview with her (some is in Part I and some in Part II).  The book is about studying death, so it’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that Connie had some thoughts about death while writing the book.  But this stuff is super-spoilery.  PLEASE don’t read it if you haven’t read Passage yet.  Also, NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS PLEASE!


Carrie:  One of the things I love about Passage, which of course is a very different kind of book, is that Joanna and Richard have each other’s back – and they keep having it, even after she dies, without it seeming overly New-Agey or mystical.  They are still working together even when they can’t communicate.

Connie:  Thank you!  Their relationship keeps going on a practical level.  And I believe that.  One of the great truths that took me a long time to learn is that people don’t go away.  They stay with you.  And if they loved you, enough, and they cared more about you than they did about themselves, which is the hallmark of true love, then that lasts.  They are with you always.  Not in any magical kind of way, but that love lasts and gives you courage and protects you.

Carrie:  My favorite moment in Passage is when Maisie finds out what happened to Joanna, and she says, “I KNEW she wouldn’t have left without telling me!” As a mother, I really do understand why Maisie’s mother works so hard to protect Maisie, but truth is very important to me, and when this happened in the book I burst into tears, and my husband said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Nothing, this book is just so wonderful!”

Connie:  Because there are worse things than dying!  Being abandoned by someone you care about – that’s way worse.  Kids always have that down cold.  Kids know exactly what matters and what the worst things are.  I never meant for the mother to be a villain.  But I did mean for her to be very misguided.

Carrie:  What does happen at the end of Passage?

Connie:   I have no idea.  I did do a lot of research.  I do think it’s possible that all of this is dying synapses. [More of Connie's ideas about immortality can be found in Interview Parts I and II].

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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Ceece says:

    I love this book.  Love it, I recommended it to my Mom, my sister, my other sister and every person I have ever met.  Thank you for reviewing it.  Maybe I should get a copy for my kindle…

  2. 2
    Barb in Marylnad says:

    You’ve made me want to give it another try.  The first time I guess I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

    By the way—have you read “Lincoln’s Dreams” yet?  I read it when it first came out and it got me hooked on her books.

  3. 3
    CarrieS says:

    Oddly, I wasn’t crazy about Lincoln’s Dreams – and I think I wan’t in the right frame of mind.  I’ll give Lincoln’s Dreams another try if you’ll take another crack at Passage!  Just remember – not a romance novel, and be prepared for major feels.

  4. 4
    Deb Kinnard says:

    (In the interest of full disclosure—I am a Christian who believes there is a God and an afterlife)

    We’re all different—what resonates with one reader makes another give the book to a friend…

    I hated Passages, probably because I read it right after discovering Doomsday Book. I liked the latter very much, and I guess I was expecting something at least marginally similar. This book wasn’t similar at all, except that nobody the characters need to contact is in any way—contactable. This is a recurring theme in Willis’s work. How does she place her characters in a plausible near-future without cell phones?

    The other thing that bothered me greatly is the ending. What happened? What didn’t? I suppose the fact that this book stayed with me when so many do not, is a telling point. Willis is a master at storytelling, but with this book I felt as though she’d not told the whole story.

  5. 5
    chacha1 says:

    This sounds a little too much like Blackout/All Clear for me.  I love TSNOTD so much that I got Blackout, then got distracted by other, less substantial books for a long time.  When I finally read Blackout I was … annoyed.  I read All Clear *only* to find out where the overly-long and discursive story would finally end.

    All that running around in circles (as you say about Passage) to, ultimately, no effect.

    All that character development, with no relationships that survive.

    All that history and suspense and ingenuity, with no resolution.

    An incredible writing talent, is Connie Willis.  But unfortunately, what she wants to do with her writing (most of it, from the reviews I’ve read) is not how I want to spend my reading time.

  6. 6
    Ca says:

    I would argue that many of her relationships do survive, although not necessarily in a romantic couple sort of way.  That aside, I do think that you are right that if you disliked Blackout/All Clear you probably won’t enjoy Passage.  It’s shorter, of course, and some things resolve and some don’t, and actually all that running around pays off.  But it doesn’t wrap up in a neat and tidy way – much is left uncertain.

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