Wednesday, August 7, 2013


PassagePassage by Connie Willis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Psychologist Joanna Lander teams up with a handsome neurologist whose ability to simulate near-death experiences brings them closer to understanding what happens at the threshold of death.

Joanna Lander has been interviewing patients for a while before Dr. Richard Wright arrives at her hospital, and together they make the perfect team to uncover the truth behind near-death experiences (NDEs). Garrulous patients, half-remembered insights, and a labyrinthine hospital are all obstacles to a truth that Joanna begins to dread discovering, especially after she herself is able to experience simulated NDEs thanks to Wright's new technique.

And that's where the plot hangs up. Joanna sprints through the hospital, endlessly avoiding a quack named Mr. Mandrake, feverishly struggling to remember something vague her old English teacher said, and researching the Titanic. It takes a full five hundred pages (this is not an exaggeration) for anything really interesting to happen in spite of all the sturm und drang, which is a frustratingly long time to wait for Joanna to remember a clue or not to get interrupted in the midst of a crucial conversation.

If Willis had cut down the first 2/3rds of the book she would have had a much better novel on her hands, though because it's a Willis book it isn't a complete waste of time. The question of "What happens when we die?" is an ageless one, and I suppose I kept reading to see if Willis would chicken out or have some insight to share. What she comes up with isn't exactly new, but feels profound and hard-earned (or maybe that's because the book was such a slog).

The strongest part of the story is actually Joanna's interactions with a death-obsessed little girl named Maisie. Maisie's fixation on historical disasters makes sense, since she herself is dying by inches as she waits for a heart transplant that may never come. It's tough to write believable and likable kids, but for me Maisie was a success. The other characters are yawn-worthy, with the exception of Mr. Briarley (what can I say? I like random quotations from great literature).

It's not Willis' best effort. She lets her fascination with the workings of her character's day-to-day research get in the way of telling a compelling story. While all the detail about the Titanic is interesting enough, Joanna's flailings could have been trimmed without losing any resonance, and the plot would have gained some much-needed momentum. The turn at the last third of the book was truly shocking, but after that another character seems to go down the same meandering path to gain an insight we've already gotten. Arg! Bellwether is a book with similar workings that's half as long and much more entertaining. If you're a hardcore Willis fan, you may enjoy Passage, but I don't recommend it to anyone else.

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