Crosstalk – Connie Willis, Mia Barron

A quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “To be Irish is to know that, in the end, the world will break your heart.”

In her “All Clear” duology, Connie Willis’s style of crossing conversations, interruptions, characters involved in their own business to the point they’re completely unaware of anything else, and feverish pacing – it all worked. I loved the characters, the style was exciting and compelling, and if I hadn’t already been a huge fan I would have become one.

In Crosstalk, however, all those same characteristics drove me straight up a wall, to the point that I had to quit for a little while to go read something else. It’s a great story – Briddey and her (somewhat new) love Trent are undergoing a procedure to let them feel each other’s emotions, which is something of a celebrity fad and famed for cementing relationships. But Briddey’s family is worried about the procedure (called an EDD), and one of her colleagues – C.B. – also thinks it’s a bad idea – and every single one of them tells her so early and often (very often), oblivious to what she wants. Actually, it kind of seemed like all their protestations might have just made her take a stand and stick to it – and of course when something does go … if not wrong, then odd … with the procedure, there’s all the more reason to keep things as quiet as possible. Where possible.

Meanwhile, Briddey’s aunt is another constant voice on her phone, wafting Auld Ireland over everything and trying to fix her up with likely Irish lads (though she had never been to Ireland and had no more right to the brogue than I do). And one of Briddey’s sisters is constantly – no, seriously, I mean constantly calling and texting her with helicopter parent worries about her nine-year-old daughter, none of which have any foundation in reality. The other sister seems a bit more solid, but … well, no, I suppose not. And then there are all the coworkers, who somehow know about Trent popping the EDD question to her before any human without any form of empathy or telepathy. Certainly not empathy – these people are hideous. They’re even worse than the people I work with, and that’s remarkable. (It’s fiction.)

Briddey must be an extraordinarily nice person, is the only conclusion I can come to. And I’m not nearly as nice, because in her place I would have murdered at least two of the other characters in this book by Chapter 3. I would have gone off on the faux-Eire aunt, because it’s mildly offensive; I would have called DCFS to have the nine-year-old taken away from my sister; I would have fired my assistant and/or quit that job and started looking for a work-from-home opportunity. Briddey does none of this – just surfs over everyone’s CONSTANT interruptions and horrific combination of nosiness and self-involvement, apologizes at times I wanted to shake her for, and keeps on keeping on.

The pace of the book is so fast that Ms Willis almost – almost – distracted me from the concerns that kept popping up about Trent and the odd little comments about the EDD that pepper his dialogue, usually interrupted. It was enough to keep reminding me I was worried. Frenetic pace, frustrating characters – I really didn’t think I was going to like this one, Connie Willis or no Connie Willis. In fact, I had to quit for a day or two, just take a break and let my blood pressure normalize before I plunged back in.

And I began to become involved. I began to care more about Briddey, and C.B. I started to care about Maeve, the niece. The episode in the Carnegie Room at the library was still and peaceful and funny and absolutely lovely – and maybe it wouldn’t have been so lovely if not for the huge contrast with the usual chaos.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the whole Irish connection to the telepathy. It seemed a bit facile to me – especially the concentration on red hair. There are plenty of people with red hair who aren’t Irish; the all-powerful Wikipedia points out that the gene for red hair is pretty common in Scotland, England, and Wales (38% there), and not unheard of pretty much everywhere else. “…The Volga region has more redheads per population than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Ireland.” It was also a little annoying that Briddey was so surprised that …er, one other character was Irish, all but saying “but you don’t have red hair”. Something like ten percent of the population of Ireland have red hair. Being Irish doesn’t mean you have red hair, and having red hair doesn’t mean you’re Irish, and the importance attached to both things and keeping their supposed connection to telepathy (for which I don’t remember a single bit of actual evidence – lots of conjecture, but not a bit of evidence) quiet just felt silly.

But whatever my issues with that, it’s a side issue. It’s still Connie Willis, who can character build like nobody’s business. I love nothing more than a perfectly ordinary person showing remarkable heroism, and C.B. had some really marvelous moments. I was never quite as in love with Briddey as, perhaps, I was supposed to be, but her panic attacks were very real (and very justified).

Just focus on the marshmallows and the Falls won’t get you.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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