Book Review

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

I love Connie Willis’s work. I devour everything she writes, and I’m utterly incapable of judging her books impartially. She once granted me at 90-minute interview, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. Which is why it’s surprising that I did not care for her new book, Crosstalk, a romantic comedy that other reviewers are praising to the skies. I found this book to have a great concept but tedious pacing and sloppy characterization. I’m convinced that it could have lost half of its length without the story being affected in the slightest.

Crosstalk takes place about five minutes into the future. Briddey Flannigan works for a telecommunications company that is desperate to compete with Apple (Apple is, in this book, still faithfully releasing a new cell phone model about once a year or so). Briddey is juggling her job, her large, demanding and intrusive family, and her equally busy co-worker boyfriend, Trent. Trent wants Briddey to undergo an outpatient procedure called an EED that increases empathy between people who “have an emotional connection.” On the other hand, another coworker, C.B., thinks that people really want less communication, not more – something Briddey comes to believe as her EED goes awry and triggers telepathy.

It seems that Briddey has a genetic tendency towards telepathy, which is dormant until the EED sets it off. She’s flooded by the thoughts of others, but luckily C.B. is also a telepath and helps her learn to block the noises. Briddey is desperate to establish her empathic connection with Trent, keep her telepathy a secret, and if possible eliminate it altogether.

A lot of Connie Willis books feature a very specific writing style in which the protagonist is constantly faced with physical and social barriers while trying to get something important accomplished. For instance, in Passage, my favorite book by Willis, the protagonist spends much of her time trying to navigate a hospital that is under construction (so stairways are blocked off and the cafeteria is always closed and she keeps having to re-route to avoid fresh paint and obnoxious co-workers and patients). At the same time, the protagonist of Passage is constantly trying to communicate with people to no avail – they have Alzheimer’s, or they don’t answer their phones, or they just stepped out of their offices. In a book like Passage, or the much lighter Willis book To Say Nothing of the Dog, this technique works for two reasons – it highlights the theme of the story, and it has serious stakes behind it. In other Willis books, like Bellwether, the technique works partly because the book is short so the technique does not have time to become tedious, so the book feels madcap instead of simply frustrating.

In Crosstalk, what’s at stake is basically Briddey’s love life, and I can tell you how her love life will resolve itself by page 12. We spend the entire book in Briddey’s head, and she’s not that interesting a character.  Maybe I’m just a grumpy pants today but I just could not get that excited about Briddey’s love life or her thought processes, which I had to read through for 495 pages.

Briddey also has a tendency to think things that the reader already knows. In other Willis books, the characters figure things out along with the reader so the technique is exciting, but in this book everything is so obvious that it’s annoying. The writing style is certainly relevant to the theme of the book, which is that too much communication is as bad or worse than too little – but it’s sure tiring to read through. Here’s a sample from Chapter One:

By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone. The first one was from Suki Parker-of course-and the next four were from Jill Quincey, all saying some variant of “Dying to hear what happened.” Suki’s said, “Heard rumor Trent Worth took you to Iridium!???” 

Of course you did, Briddey thought. Suki was Commspan’s very own Gossip Girl. And that meant by now the whole company knew it. It was a good thing Commspan didn’t have a non-fraternization policy – she and Trent could never have kept their romance secret. But she’d hoped to keep them from finding out about last night at least until she could tell her family. If they don’t know already.

She scanned through her other texts. There were five from her sister Kathleen, eight from her sister Mary Clare, and nine from Aunt Oona reminding her of the Daughters of Ireland Gaelic poetry reading Saturday night.

I never should have given her a smartphone, Briddey thought.

I don’t know about you guys, but I already feel a need to go lie down, and that’s only page one. Things only get worse from this point.

The book has some other weird weaknesses – weird because they are so unlike Willis’ other work. Only people who are Irish, 100% Irish, are capable of telepathy, to which I say, “Huh wha?” At worst this has unfortunate implications about racial purity and at best it doesn’t make any sense, something which Briddey herself points out.

The characters are appallingly flat. Trent is a one-dimensional character whose motivations are obvious all along. Briddey’s niece, Maeve, is a nine-year old who acts like a thirteen-year old. Briddey is a helpless character who constantly needs to be rescued by C.B. and who is almost totally lacking in agency. Maeve’s mom is a send-up of overprotective moms who is basically a reflection of a similar character in Passages – except that the high stakes in Passages made that flawed mom’s motivations understandable, whereas the mom in Crosstalk is a caricature. C.B. is the only interesting character in Crosstalk. Willis has written amazing characters, male and female, in the past, but they are not to be found here.

This book is about the exhaustion of being bombarded by media and by interpersonal demands, and it does a great job of conveying that exhaustion. But it’s also 495 pages of that same great job – which made it, for me at least, an exhausting read. I would suggest that if you want to give this book a try, don’t pick it up when you are feeling overwhelmed or worn out. It’s not depressing; it’s just tiring. I didn’t enjoy the romantic comedy aspect because I found not only the resolution but also many of the steps towards the resolution to be either predictable or irritating and the characters deadly dull and sometimes downright offensive in their passivity (Briddey) and their dishonesty (C.B.).

Since I read the book, Willis has stated in an interview for Verge that she “hates romance.” When I interviewed her in 2013 (Part I and Part II), her comments were more measured – she said that she preferred romantic comedy to romance. In a way, I think that the tightening of her view that romantic comedy is separate from romance and vastly superior to romance is evident in Crosstalk, a book in which the male lead is almost a stalker and is dishonest and controlling of the female lead, a book in which the heroine has no agency, and a book in which relationships are self-serving and usually toxic. I’m not saying that Willis has to write romance or even like romance. But I do think that in switching from “I prefer romantic comedy” to “I hate romance” she’s lost sight of both the romantic and the comedy. This book failed at the two most important things a romantic comedy has to do. It did not make me want the leads to get together or to stay together and it didn’t make me laugh. It just made me tired.

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Crosstalk by Connie Willis

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  1. JenC says:

    Thank you for your review–I thought it was just me. I am a huge Connie Willis fan, and “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is my favorite book. (I love it so much that I’ve made all my friends and family read it too.) I was also disappointed and a bit bored by this book. I thought it had some elements of “Bellwether”–e.g., scientist working in distant part of building who dresses unfashionably, pointless meetings–but it wasn’t fun like that book.

  2. Tam says:

    Oh dear. I don’t like her madcap stuff at all – my favourite, favourite book of hers is ‘Doomsday Book’, which is gorgeously, terribly bleak. I might skip this one.

  3. vaultdweller111 says:

    Oh, god. The mention of Passage stopped me in my tracks. That book set me spinning into an existential crisis that I have yet to recover from. I have never had a book affect me as deeply as Passage.

    So, it’s disappointing to hear that Crosstalk isn’t great. And even more disappointing to hear of the scorn for romance (which I don’t really understand). I guess I’ll just retain my good feelings toward Passage and Doomsday Book and skip this one.

  4. Christina McPants says:

    I love Connie Willis, but she has a pretty distinctive writing style that includes a lot of flat characters that exist to be laughed at. Bellwether and Passage were chock full of both. To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether are amazing, I enjoyed Passage and the Doomsday Book (but had to stop rereading both when I realized that my feelings of despair and sadness were probably triggered by both). Sounds like I’ll give this one a pass, that’s disappointing.

  5. Barb in Maryland says:

    Carrie, thank you for this. I’ll be picking it up from the library later today and I’ll be able to see for myself. So, if I turn out to dislike it, I will know that I’m in good company. I’m another long-time Willis fan, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for a good reading experience.

  6. chacha1 says:

    I read “To Say Nothing of the Dog” and loved it SO MUCH.

    Then I read “Blackout” and was outraged by the cliffhanger ending. Read “All Clear” under protest because I wanted the end of the story, but IMO the two could have been a single book that was much less about Look What I’m Doing As a Writer and more about, you know, telling a STORY.

    And that Spirograph writing style was NOT working for me. I was frustrated and borderline enraged the whole time because the Same. Shit. Kept. Happening. The point was made the first time.

    So I haven’t read any other Willis. Life is too short.

  7. cleo says:

    I’m so glad you reviewed this. I’m a huge Willis fan but the blurb didn’t exactly appeal to me – and I’m not sure the book will appeal either.

    I love Willis but she is hit or miss for me. I loved The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Miracle. And Bellweather. But I DNF’d Blackout – I just couldn’t get through all the details.

  8. Cordy (not stuck in spam filter sub-type) says:

    That’s unfortunate! I’m always on the lookout for unwilling-telepath/empath books.

    I typically can’t continue reading when in a romance a side character is extremely interested in the main character’s personal life in a way that the main character pretends to dislike but which often feels like… preening to me. Just. Blech!

  9. CS says:

    I will read it, because I would read a laundry list by Connie Willis. But I will go in with my expectations modified, which is good. Passage is my favorite book of all the books. I reread that and Doomsday Book about once every two years or so. Thank you for the review.

  10. Gloriamarie says:

    Thought #1: A new book by Willis? marvelous.

    Thought #2: D+ for a Willis’s book? Does Carrie S have the flu?

    Thought #3: After reading a good bit through the review, I found myself asking is this a book by THE Connie Willis? Carrie S seems certain of that.

    Thought #4: Willis has a deft manner with comedy. First thing I ever read was The Bellweather, second was To Say Nothing of the Dog and i have adored everything else she has written.

    Well, huh.

  11. CarrieS says:

    @Gloriamarie – I actually went throught eh same process. First the squee., then the – am I hallucinating this book? Do I have the flu? Am I dreaming? No, although I was dealing with fatigue issues, which I address. Is it REALLY THE Connie? I have verified this to the best of my ability.

    But seriously it reads like someone read a lot of Connie Willis and thought, “Oh hey I can do that!” but they couldn’t.

  12. Gloriamarie says:

    @Carrie S, “But seriously it reads like someone read a lot of Connie Willis and thought, “Oh hey I can do that!” but they couldn’t.”

    Yes, exactly. Your review of the book makes me wonder if Willis is ill? It sounds so far from her usual standard that I wonder if her editor is ill? Is someone trying to profit off of her and she is not in a position to stop them?

    Which just goes to show how big a fan I am of her work.

    Did you read Lincoln’s Dreams? I did not see the end of that coming.

  13. Barb in Maryland says:

    @Gloriamarie Re:Lincoln’s Dreams—OMG! The ending!! However, it is one of my favorites by her. But, as with ‘Doomsday Book’, the emotional punch is so great that I go years between re-reads.

  14. Gloriamarie says:

    @Barb in Maryland, Agreed need years in between rereads. Kinda feeling that way about Blackout and All Clear too.

  15. Kareni says:

    For years I’ve heard rave reviews about To Say Nothing of the Dog; despite my love of time travel novels, I could never read more than about fifty pages before giving up. It makes me wonder if Crosstalk would work for me.

  16. neurondoc says:

    At WorldCon 2012, I heard Connie Willis read a snippet from this book. Read aloud by her, it was quite captivating and I’ve been waiting (impatiently) for years for it to be released. After reading this review, I’m much less enthused. I do generally like her madcap books but I just don’t think I can face a 495 tome of madcappiness. Bummer.

  17. Nancy C says:

    I’m so bummed! I went through the same cycle mentioned previously: yay for a new Willis, wha-huh? on Carrie S’s grade, and an increasing sinking feeling as I read the review. I love so much of Connie Willis’ work, and she (along with Christopher Moore) may be my most recommended authors ever. I don’t know that I’ll even bother with this one. I have a coworker who will absolutely read it, so maybe I’ll wait till he gives me his thoughts.

    But maybe I’ll go back and reread some of her older work. That might cheer me up.

    Has anyone here read her short story collections? She does well in that format, too.

  18. Gloriamarie says:

    @Nancy C. Love her short stories.

  19. Melanie says:

    I have read and reread “Doomsday Book” and “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” and I love many of Connie Willis’s short stories, including “Fire Watch,” “Miracle,” and “Inn.” I liked but didn’t love “Bellwether;” I agree completely with Carrie’s assessment that it worked because it’s short. I haven’t read “Blackout” and “All Clear” yet, but I share Connie Willis’s fascination with the Blitz, so the accumulation of detail in those books probably won’t bother me. I don’t think I’m up for an exhausting 495-page book, though.

  20. Liska says:

    This books sounds so disappointing, because I love Connie Willis, but I’m not all that surprised. Her short stories can pull off the madcap farcical situations but they really outstay their welcome in a full-length novel.

    Sort of on-topic, I recently read her novel ‘Promised Land’ with Cynthia Felice, which is much more like a ‘typical’ romance (only set on another planet), and yet the authors managed to create something that was hilarious and moving and overturned all your first assumptions about the characters. I recommend this so much!

  21. Marybeth says:

    I just finished Crosstalk today (I am in bed with the flu) and quite enjoyed it (possibly partly since seeing a D+ grade lowered my expectations 🙂 ). A few comments:

    -I wasn’t bothered by the 100% Irish thing. For one it’s not strictly true–non 100% Irish people have/develop telepathy in the story especially in the past–and while 100% Irish people being more likely to have it is part of the plot, I’m perfectly willing to believe the recessive gene (or rather lack of an inhibitor) crops up in other places–the person who created the theory had all of 3 datapoints and did not seem to be investigating other cultures.

    -I agree everything–the true love interest, the bad guy’s motives, the twist of sorts at the end–is kinda obvious. I was in it for the romp, however, and I got the romp!

    -I agree the novel could have been much shorter. To me this is not a detriment.

    -This is a farce and several most characters are caricatures–of the Connie Willis I’ve read this reminds me the most of Bellwether (minus the sheep) with a bit of Inside Job (same sense of guy knows everything).

    -Briddey is saved a lot. I was not deeply bothered by this–she does (eventually) make correct leaps of logic and she is in a difficult position. In the beginning it did seem like the hero was hanging around the edges to save her but (to me) it did get better when she showed more interest in him later on and some plot things were revealed.

    -The ‘hero’ does make no secret of the fact that he would happily sleep with Briddey. This bothered me. In the narrative it was played like either banter or he was trying to shock her out of various thoughts, but I could have done without them and the “girl like you, guy like me” comments. On a somewhat related note it’s only guys that seem to have “cesspool” thoughts related to sex/dating. While the US election is certainly bringing nastiness out of the woodwork, I was expecting less tired tropes and an acknowledgement of LGBT couples.

    -What most bothered me about the novel was that the “high tech”/”kids these days” trappings are just kinda obvious surface layer things–Facebook, Twitter, Apple etc. There are many more cell phone manufactures/platforms, a huge range of dating sites with even more outlandish gimmicks than the ones Willis makes up, and sundry other ways for Maude to entertain herself–reddit and Tumblr are the tip of an ice berg and neither are even mentioned.

    Sorry for taking up so much space, but I’ve read several books that were highly rated here that I abhorred and wouldn’t compare it to them never mind some of the other D rated books 🙂 My rating would be closer to a Bish level.

  22. Vasha says:

    One understandable reason for not liking romance would be a generally jaundiced view of human nature and the possibility of meaningful connection. If you don‘t think it’s possible for two people to have a mutually supportive relationship that improves them both, you wouldn’t write romance, would you? Now I haven‘t read a whole lot of Willis, but it seems to me her worldview is quite bleak in spite of madcap comedy.

  23. Vasha says:

    P.S. For a book that’s actually a romance and suggests that telepathy between lovers would not be a good thing, I recommend Dark Space by Lisa Henry.

  24. So I’ve started reading this, as it’s popped off my queue at the local library, and only a few pages in, I can say this:

    a) Yep, I’m already exhausted by the constant bombardment of people always wanting to talk to Briddey;

    b) _What kind of family comes and hassles a family member at work_, FFS?;

    c) Speaking as someone who has had a tech career as her day job for the last two decades and change, gosh, it sure must be nice to be working at a company where you still get your own office instead of an open floor that has open pods and not even cubicles! Or even worse, a chair and a keyboard in a giant server rack room so you don’t even get your own personal space;

    d) Also, WTF kind of tech work environment lets coworkers gossip that much about each other’s love lives?;

    e) Also #2, I’d be expecting HR to be frowning VERY HEAVILY upon the idea of coworkers having a romantic relationship, unless it was very, very clear that one party was not under the supervision of the other party. Trent and Briddey really really really should not be working on the same team if they want to actually have a relationship. o.O

    I get this is supposed to be a zany madcap comedy, but wow, all these things have already hit me in the first couple chapters. We’ll see if I decide to finish it.

  25. Oh yeah and also f) srsly, CommSpan? If you guys want to pretend to have a prayer of competing with the iPhone, you might want to have _more than one guy_ in your hardware/design/ideas department. JUST A THOUGHT!

  26. And, a few more chapters in, I have now DNFed this book. I wanted to like it, I really did. Zany rom-com with a touch of SFnal tech to it should be right up my alley.

    Except that in addition to my tech background making it impossible for me to buy that Briddey is at a plausible tech company, my medical history makes it really, really hard for me to buy that:

    a) Briddey can actually go out of her way to lie to both her coworkers AND her family about how she’s going to go have this surgery, because she has apparently never heard of emergency contacts or anything, and she has apparently also never heard of how even if nothing actually goes wrong, yes, hospitals WILL be really particular about not letting you be discharged unless you have someone who will drive you home. And they will ALSO be particular about someone being on hand to look after you during your recovery. If they put you under with a general for your procedure and kept you overnight, they’re not going to just let you go home. That’s a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen.

    I made it as far as the part where C.B. comes to actually fetch her but bailed at that point because also:

    b) Speaking as someone who’s in the middle of waiting for a couple of months just to have a consultation about a surgery, never mind the actual procedure, I have a real, REAL hard time buying that this famous surgeon’s waiting list suddenly magically had a spot open up in it that let Briddey and Trent skate ahead of everybody else on the waiting list.

    And while I suppose that this might actually be a plot point, I do not actually care enough to continue reading to find out. Ah well!

  27. Raams says:

    I really enjoyed Doomsday Book and I love To Say Nothing of the Dog. I also found Passage incredibly deep. However, Willis has a somewhat belabored writing style which has gotten really worse in her recent works. Blackout/All Clear should have been a single book. They were godawfully tedious to get through, especially the repetitive internal monologues going over the same issues without any forward momentum. I’m about part-way through Crosstalk, and so far, I’m finding it dull and unrealistic. I will finish it, as I’m listening it as an audiobook, but I doubt I’ll pick up another book by Willis at this point. I think I’ll go back and re-read TSNOTD after this.

  28. Hyacinths says:

    I love Willis’s plots and twists, but I find reading her incredibly frustrating. Her characters alwsys seem like they are trapped in the most irritating stress dream–the kind where you keep making the wrong turn, misdialing the phone, and have that nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something FOR HUNDREDS OF PAGES. I finally gave up on her, because an endless series of petty annoyances is a poor replacement for actual plot-driven conflict.

  29. Taya says:

    Carrie S, you NAILED IT!!! This is one of the WORST books I’ve read recently, and I am a BIG Connie Willis fan. But, DNF, after 30 chapters (out of 36). I just can no longer abide the main character’s LACK OF CHARACTER! Seriously, most of the plot “just happens” to her because she is TOTALLY ABSENT OF AGENCY (as other reviewers have mentioned) but not in a way that is meant to be social commentary or have ANY POINT AT ALL except to keep this sad car driving down the road with bald tires, no muffler, and no license tags. I won’t even bother to talk about the creepiness of every other character in the story.
    As a reader it also became impossible to not feel like the meta message here is that what is in effect mind rape is fiiiiine. Really disgusting, and so disappointing.

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