Posted by : atcampbell | On : May 21, 2002

Passage by Connie Willis

Elaine Powell hosted this meeting as a pool party at her house. Eighteen people showed up, including one first-time participant. The topic of discussion was Passage, a recent Hugo-nominated novel by Connie Willis. The book is a contemporary medical thriller involving two medical researchers, Joanna Lander and Richard Wright, who are looking into near-death experiences. They collect some data by interviewing patients who’ve survived such events, and also by subjecting volunteers to a drug that simulates the experience. One of their main obstacles is a new age guru who tries to get to patients first and fill their minds full of his preconceived ideas of the afterlife. Eleven of us had started the book, and all but two had finished it.

The two published authors in our group loved Passage, which one felt was “the most ambitious book I’ve read in a very long time”. They raved about the construction of the novel, citing “structure that takes my breath away”, “shocking twists”, and “artful misdirections”. They praised the themes of “attitudes about death” and “search for truth”, and thought they were elegantly woven into the story. They liked seeing how the two researchers came to similar conclusions through entirely different thought processes, and how preconceptions flavored their lives.

Most of the rest of us had more mixed feelings about the book. We agreed that Connie Willis’s prose style was excellent and she developed several wonderful characters, particular the patients in the hospital. However, several of us felt that Richard and Joanna did not come across as believable researchers. They didn’t seem like the types of personalities who go into research, and they had much more free time than most real researchers do. The details of their research project didn’t make a lot of sense. Many of us felt betrayed by a major plot twist about 2/3 into the book, and found it a chore to continue reading afterward.

Three people simply hated Passage. One said it was “boring” and “it read like a Victorian romantic comedy”. Another felt it “seemed like a mainstream novel” and was disappointed because she “expected more of a Hugo nominee”. The other member of this contingent had several complaints: “it seemed to have a fast pace, but a slow plot”, “the last section was boring”, and “when I got to the end, I realized I had been bludgeoned by metaphor”.

While our opinions about Passage varied widely, the discussion was fun. After the discussion, we ate pizza delivered from Double Dave’s and hung out around the pool.

— A. T. Campbell, III