4 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Hello, this is another episode of “why, book, why” brought to you by feelings.

Title: Crosstalk

Author: Connie Willis

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Del Rey / Gollancz
Publication Date: October 4 2016
Hardcover: 512 Pages

Crosstalk

Science fiction icon Connie Willis brilliantly mixes a speculative plot, the wit of Nora Ephron, and the comedic flair of P. G. Wodehouse in Crosstalk a genre-bending novel that pushes social media, smartphone technology, and twenty-four-hour availability to hilarious and chilling extremes as one young woman abruptly finds herself with way more connectivity than she ever desired.

In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely in a way far beyond what she signed up for.

It is almost more than she can handle especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love and communication are far more complicated than she ever imagined.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): eARC

Review:

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

Hello, this is another episode of “why, book, why” brought to you by feelings.

Connie Willis’ new book Crosstalk is about technology, telepathy and communication.

Briddey is a high executive in the mobile phone industry, working for a company that is in direct competition with Apple and in constant look-out for the next big thing in terms of tech gadgets. Briddey’s new boyfriend of six weeks Trent is a dreamboat: rich, gorgeous and in love with her. When Trent proposes they undergo an EDD together – a procedure that will allow them to sense each other’s feelings – Briddey is more than happy to say yes because she knows that a wedding proposal will soon follow. The only problem is telling her Irish family – her overwhelmingly protective, intrusive, super-dramatic family – and keeping this a secret from the gossips in the office. Not even the company’s tech genius (and resident basement nerd) C.B.’s warnings that the procedure could have “unintended consequences” is enough to put her off.

Briddey goes ahead with the EDD but when she wakes up after surgery, she realises she is not sensing Trent’s feelings for her. At least not yet. But she is communication telepathically with… C.B. Why is this happening? Does it mean she has an emotional bond with C.B.? What will she tell Trent? What will happen when the evil telecom companies learn that telepathy is an actual thing?

To make matters worse, this is not the only unintended consequence: soon Briddey is hearing dozens, hundreds of voices at once and only C.B. can help her shutting them out before she completely loses her mind.

Reading Crosstalk was a veritable rollercoaster.

The initial excitement of reading a new (long coming!) book by a favourite author, another of her screwball romantic comedies in the same vein of perennial favourites To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether is unrivalled. Much like Bellwether, Crosstalk looks at corporations and the development of ideas in a fast-paced, manic screwball, light romantic comedy of errors. Briddey and C.B. run around trying to understand what is going on, with C.B. helping Briddey keeping the voices at bay whilst trying to keep Trent from finding out their connection, while – obviously – falling in love with each other.

Connie Willis has a way of writing these stories that can be charming, engaging and fun to read. In a novel about creating ways of communication, the irony of not being able to communicate clearly with each other (true to Briddey and her family, Briddey and Trent, and to a certain extent, Briddey and C.B.) is not lost on me and the author pulls that off for the most part.

Unfortunately, Crosstalk is way overlong, frustratingly so. It prolongs the miscommunication for far too long in a way that feels forced and unwarranted. From the start, it’s clear that C.B. is keeping important information from Briddey, and it takes most of the book to find out exactly why and what. One of the things that Connie Willis is skilled at as a writer, is to pull the rug under you by making you feel comfortable about what you are reading then twisting it on its head. In that sense, it was super cool when C.B told Briddey that yes, telepathy exists, and they were connected telepathically and they could communicate without words. I was ready to enjoy this ride and see where it took me. Spoiler: it took me to a place I did not want to go.

You see, C.B. and Briddey are telepaths because they carry the haploidgroup gene R1b-L21 (which Irish people do often carry). In the novel, the Irish who develop telepathy are those who are pure Irish like Briddey, C.B. and other Irish people in it.

In a Sci Fi novel where literally anything could be used to explain telepathy, to have what is essentially white genetic purity as the reason behind it, is ill-advised and imprudent at best. I do not wish to entertain what would be the “at worst” in this scenario. Also ill-conceived: mental illnesses are often hand-waved here as telepaths-gone-wrong because no one would believe them.

With that said, the genetic explanation behind their telepathy was a major deterrent in my enjoyment of the novel but not the only thing that put me off.

For a Sci Fi novel set in the near future and published in 2016, Crosstalk feels oddly out of touch and antiquated. Both Briddey and C.B. are techies in their twenties and yet they run around throwing references to Gilligan’s Island, musical theatre from the 60s (Guys and Dolls is a recurring theme) and Victorian novels. It’s often jarring even though the charitable part in me wants to call it “charmingly antiquated”.

Crosstalk is also a romance and part of Briddey’s character development hinges on her realisation that Trent is an asshole and that C.B. is the right guy for her. The former takes far too long considering how he mistreats Briddey for most of the novel. Briddey’s feelings for C.B. develop over the course of the novel and are predicated on him always being there for her. But their relationship is another thing that rubbed me the wrong way. To start with, when C.B is often manhandling, trespassing on her thoughts and telling her what to do. Oh, it’s all painted as him “always being there for her” because he is a Nice Guy, part and parcel of the Beauty and the Geek romance. The book really wants you to buy that Briddey is the one with power here: because she is beautiful and smart and completely out of his league (if only he could prove he is better than her boyfriend. Guys, the bar is really low here). However, the power differential really tips the other way: C.B. has all the knowledge, which he chooses to keep from Briddey and he constantly lies to her and keeps her in the dark. It’s uncomfortable and made it hard to buy into their romance.

Finally (no, I am not over), with the villainous, evil tech corporations and the critique of modern society with its overuse of technology and ubber-connectivity that leads to the lack of human connection, the novel feels like a version of old people yell at the clouds. A lot of the (online – the irony, it abounds) reviews of the book talk about it as a positive side of the novel.

Listen: I am writing this review on an online platform, which will likely be read and possibly discussed in social media by a group of people who would otherwise never have met each other. I met my romantic partner, my business partner, my podcast partner, and most of my friends online, most of whom live miles and miles away from me. I am in daily contact with my mother and my sister who live very far away from me, because of technology. Lack of human connection my ass. This narrative really tires me.

Sadly, Crosstalk turned out to be a huge disappointment. The moments of brilliance – and there are those, it is Connie Willis after all – are not enough to make Crosstalk one for the Connie Willis Keeper Shelf (I do actually have one).

Rating: 4 – Bad but not without some merit

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7 Comments

  • What's in a name?
    October 6, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Passed it over because het romance is not my thing, but it sounds like I would have disliked it for other reasons anyway. Ah well.

  • neverwhere
    October 6, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    This is so disappointing! Fab review as always, shame it couldn’t have been for a more enjoyable book :/

  • Sharon
    October 10, 2016 at 9:11 am

    This is what I was afraid of when I saw this. I find that some Connie Willis books drag because so much of the tension depends on people running around crazily and being distracted or missing connections (I’m looking at you, Passages), and the premise here seemed like it would lend itself to WAY too much of that.

  • Matthew
    October 14, 2016 at 1:42 am

    I didn’t want to believe your review because I love so many of Connie Willis’ books — she’s one of the few authors I reread often — but now that I’ve read the novel, I agree with almost every point you’ve made! I was so disappointed with the novel.

  • Ana
    October 14, 2016 at 4:24 am

    @Matthew – I know exactly how you feel 🙁

  • October 2016 round up | By Singing Light
    November 1, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    […] satire; the weird element of ethnic purity; the tired idea that we are all too connected. Ana’s review at The Book Smugglers sums up my feelings […]

  • Steven
    November 14, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    I’ve barely begun and I don’t think I can finish. This is really a sad thing because I’ve at least liked–and in most cases loved–everything Connie Willis has written, and like Matthew, have re-read many of her novels. Today I looked up reviews to see if my initial impressions were matched by others, and was sorry to find a lot of agreement. I was going to force myself past what I hoped was simply a poorly-edited, awkward start. One of my frustrations with all of her books is the stress I feel with her beloved theme of “if so-and-so could only reach someone else to explain a very vital point, all would be well, but alas, they’ve missed each other by moments, usually because of the obnoxious interference by a gossipy, self-important antagonist.” After reading this book for an hour, I already wanted to scream; Briddy’s invasive relatives, the fact that she seems incapable of turning off her phone, letting it go to voicemail, or changing the locks to deny her absolutely insane family (beyond what I would expect even in satire) entry to every place she has, including her office. I rolled my eyes when Our Hero spent paragraphs describing privacy-saving apps of which he’s conceived… variations of which have been around as long as I’ve had a smartphone and assume that the user has an inability to maintain even basic social boundaries. These characters don’t read like tech-savvy executives, they feel as if they’ve perhaps traveled from one of Willis’ 1940s time-travel novels to a slightly-blurred 2016 and are doing their best to fit in. Ah well, I’m grateful for her better books, and I’ll look forward to the next. This feels as if it’s been written by someone who is trying to write LIKE Connie Willis but is pushing it all a bit too hard.

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