Psychic Romances and Passive Protagonists: A Review of Connie Willis’s Crosstalk

Crosstalk (2016)
Written by: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 498 (Hardback)
Publisher: Del Ray

Why I Chose It: A few years ago, I read a handful of really great books by Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and Bellwether. With the release of her latest book, Crosstalk, I figured that it was the perfect time to get back into her work.

The premise:

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.

Some Light Spoilers Below


Discussion: Crosstalk is a book with a compelling central premise. We are currently living in an age of information overload, and Crosstalk’s empathy surgery — called EED — is a clear stand-in for our tendency to overshare on the the internet and social media. But even given the book’s relatability, I suspect that most readers would balk at he idea getting an EED. Feeling close to one’s partner is a wonderful thing, but not too many of us would want to be 100% emotionally open to anyone. Seriously, think of the last time you had a really bad day. Would you want your romantic partner to share every scrap of that with you? At the same time, given that our current environment can leave us feel overwhelmed by life, and unable to connect to our loved ones, you can see how this could lead to a world where surgeries like EEDs would be considered desirable.

Unfortunately, I found Crosstalks‘s interesting concept to be undercut by some issues I had with the book’s characterization. And when I say characterization, I’m mainly talking about the book’s protagonist, Briddey Flannigan.

When we first meet Briddey, she is being pulled in several different directions at once, from her hectic workplace environment, to her emotionally dependent family, to her boyfriend Trent. Given that she doesn’t spend much time with Trent (and hasn’t been seeing him that long), you can’t help but wonder why she would volunteer to be psychically linked to him in the first place. But Briddey, as you soon find out, is a woman with very little control over her own life, who constantly lets herself be pushed around by the strongest personality in the room, and makes very few decisions for herself.

In truth, I didn’t have that big of a problem with Briddey at first. It can be argued that her out of control life lends her a certain relateability in Crosstalk’s chapters, after all. Unfortunately, Willis doesn’t choose to develop Briddey much beyond that point. We get to learn precious little about her strengths, passions, desires or quirks, which makes her feel awfully bland. On top of that, she is frustratingly lacking in agency, making her feel more like a vehicle for the plot more than an actual character.

The male romantic interest, C.B., on the other hand, is a much more developed character. From the moment you first meet him, you get a very good sense about who he is, or at least appears to be. As the book continues, the more complicated a person he becomes. Briddey, on the other hand, merely floats from scene to scene, mechanically following the wishes of others (she does show some backbone at the book’s end, but that ends up feeling like too little, too late). By the time I got to the end of the book, I still didn’t feel as if I knew who Briddey was as a person. And given that Crosstalk is close to 500 pages long, that’s a real problem.

And it’s also a real shame, because otherwise there is just so much cool stuff going on in this book. I really like how Crosstalk explores the idea of psychic powers, and their benefits and drawbacks. The story itself reads quite smoothly, thanks in part to fast-moving dialogue between our characters. And the romance works well too. By the end of the book, I found myself really rooting for Briddey and C.B. to end up getting together, a must for any romantic comedy. Granted, the comedic elements were, at times, a bit too broad for my tastes, especially in dealing with Briddey’s ridiculous family, but given that there was a reason for why they were so ridiculous, I found myself willing to let these over-the-top moments slide.

Conclusion: There’s a lot going on in Connie Willis’s Crosstalk, including some cool worldbuilding and the exploration of psychic powers. The book possesses a nice romance and is a smooth read overall. Unfortunately, Crosstalk‘s protagonist, Briddey, ends up getting lost among the shuffle, feeling more like a passive stand in for the reader, rather than a full fledged character of her own. This one element really marred what was otherwise a fun read. I wouldn’t say that I disliked Crosstalk, but due to the issues I had with the book’s protagonist, I can’t really say that I liked it all that much either. It appears that most readers have enjoyed Crosstalk just fine, so maybe you shouldn’t take my work on it. But as for me, I think I’ll stick to my Connie Willis classics like Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

8 Comments

  • Lane Robins January 26, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Interesting. This one is definitely on my to-read list, and I’m glad to know about some of the character flatness up front. I’m trying to remember how proactive a character Ned was in To Say Nothing of the Dog, because I recall him being pretty much a pinball to fate as well.

    Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier January 26, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      And that’s the crazy thing. While I was reading Crosstalk (and writing this review), I found myself second guessing myself. I read To Say Nothing of the Dog YEARS ago. Maybe the same issues were present there as well? Maybe the issues are less about the book but in my preferences as a reader? Or maybe it’s just because people just tend to be more critical of female characters overall, when opposed to male characters?

      I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that Briddey just felt underdeveloped and overly passive all around, that that just didn’t gel well with me.

      Reply
      • Lane Robins January 26, 2017 at 7:22 pm

        It’ll be interesting to read. I enjoyed the sample of it, but I could definitely see Briddey being irritating in the long run.

        Reply
      • Shara White January 26, 2017 at 11:03 pm

        I remember when we all read To Say Nothing of the Dog for the Calico Reaction Book Club. I was one of the few who felt rather indifferent about the book, preferring her more serious books (Dooms Day Book, The Passage) to that lighter-hearted tale. That being said, you can make a case for the type of reader you were a few years ago for the type of reader you are now.

        I did rather love The Bellwether, though….

        Reply
  • Olya (aka Weasel of Doom) January 26, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I keep reading the title as “Psychotic Romances…” I think I need help 🙂

    Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier January 26, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      Now THAT would have been a twist…

      Reply
    • Shara White January 26, 2017 at 11:05 pm

      No…. you don’t need help, because you just provided an extra case of awesome. 🙂

      Reply
  • Shara White January 26, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    I’ve got this book to read on my Kindle but haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I have to say, this cover SCREAMS YA fiction to me. Anyone else?

    Reply

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