REVIEW: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
I believe I’ve been hearing good things about To Say Nothing of the Dog for about as long as I’ve been a part of the online romance community. TSNotD is not a romance, but it does contain a dash of romance as well as enough of an historical setting (it’s a time-travel fantasy) to make it appealing to those of us who like to live in the past when reading. It’s also one of the most delightful books I’ve read in quite a while.
The book’s present time is Oxford, 2057. Time travel technology was developed years before, but the practice of time travel itself has fallen out of favor somewhat. It was quickly discovered that it was of limited use, except perhaps for historians eager to observe events up close, as the universe had natural corrections that it could and would enact in order to, say, keep one from going back in time to pick the winning lotto numbers or to kill Hitler. Due to a factor referred to as “slippage”, a traveler will inevitably be sent to the wrong time or place to prevent him or her from taking any action that could change the past in any substantive way.
The story opens in 1940 with Ned Henry, a time-traveling historian (and our narrator), sifting through the rubble of Coventry Cathedral, which has been bombed by the Luftwaffe. Ned is on the hunt for an object called “the bishop’s bird stump”, which I assumed was some sort of obscure Britishism that this American couldn’t understand. In fact the provenance of the name is explained late in the book, and the object itself operates as a sort of MacGuffin throughout the story.
Ned’s mission is at the behest of a holy terror named Lady Schrapnell. Lady Schrapnell is an enormously wealthy American-born aristocrat who is behind the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in the modern day (that is, in 2057). At some point in history the cathedral was razed in favor of a shopping mall. Its restoration is opposed by various groups, with many feeling that the enormous expense could be put to better use.
Lady Schrapnell is a perfectionist (to say the least) who has corralled the entirety of Oxford’s history department to aid in her quest to restore the cathedral to its former glory. Her motto is “God is in the details”, by which she means everything must be perfect for the consecration of the cathedral, coming up in a few weeks. Perfection in this case requires locating (somewhere in history) the bishop’s bird stump, which went missing after the bombing in 1940.
Ned, unfortunately, has made so many “drops” in the quest for this item (usually traveling back to attend innumerable jumble sales) that he is suffering from “time-lag”. Time-lag is a phenomenon that can develop after multiple drops without sufficient rest; it’s a bit similar to jet-lag. It leads to confusion, Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and a tendency towards maudlin behavior (“like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold-sober”). He’s sent back to 2057 from 1940 with orders to get some rest (which cannot be accomplished unless he can avoid Lady Schrapnell, who is single-minded and doesn’t care much about time-lagged historians). When a possible crisis crops up – another historian accidentally brings a cat back through from the Victorian era, a calamity that should not be possible because of those natural corrections that are supposed to occur – Ned is hastily recruited to try to help fix the problem. The idea is that he can bring the cat back to where it belongs and then rest (and hide from Lady Schrapnell) in Victorian times for a few days.
Unfortunately, because of the time-lag (and resultant exhaustion and Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds), Ned goes through the net (the time-travel apparatus) with a less-than-complete understanding of where he’s going, who he’s meeting, and what exactly he’s supposed to do. He arrives in 1888 Oxford only vaguely remembering that he’s supposed to meet someone at someplace called “something’s end”, but that doesn’t narrow it down a lot for him.
Luckily for Ned, he quickly encounters an Oxford student, Terence St. Trewes, who is hoping to row up the Thames with his trusty companion, a bulldog named Cyrill. Terence lacks the requisite funds to hire a boat; Ned provides them (with a thought that this will lead to his contact), and off the three of them go. They quickly pick up Terence’s instructor Professor Peddick, after first rescuing him from drowning. Peddick is the very picture of an absent-minded professor, obsessed with various species of fish and his feud with a fellow scholar over theories of history. Off they set for the promisingly-named Muching’s End, where Terence hopes to reunite with Miss Tossie Mering, a young woman with whom he’s become quite infatuated.
Tossie is a spoiled and empty-headed young lady who had traveled to Oxford with her mother for a seance (clairvoyance and seances being all the rage in the Victorian era) to try to locate her missing cat, Princess Arjumand. Yes, Princess Arjumand is the self-same cat that Ned has been sent back to return to its rightful time and place. And the time traveler who inadvertently brought Princess Arjumand through, Verity Kimble, has infiltrated the Mering family and is staying with them, posing as a cousin (this was one detail I didn’t understand – wouldn’t these people know who their cousin was? If there was ever an explanation for this detail, I must have missed it). Ned has thus found his contact (and become a bit infatuated himself with the beautiful and clever Verity).
Once ensconced in the Victoria era and the bosom of the Mering household, Princess Arjumand back in Tossie’s indulgent embrance, Ned and Verity should only have to concentrate on finding any evidence of the bishop’s bird stump (they might as well, since they’re there), but it’s not that simple. When Verity came through with the cat, “slippages” in time and place began to occur; these slippages are assumed to be the result of the unusual occurrence (the cat being brought through time). But Princess Arjumand has been returned, and the slippages continue to occur, even getting worse in some cases and stranding other historians in their locations. Ned and Verity try to figure out just why history hasn’t corrected itself, but that’s easier said than done.
I loved so much about this book – for one thing, the animals are awesome. They include: Cyrill, Terence’s bulldog and faithful companion (much disdained by Tossie and her mother); Princess Arjumand, the cat, whose unexpected time-traveling precipitates Ned’s trip back to Victorian times; the Merings’ neighbor’s cat, whose obvious pregnancy is too delicate a topic to broach around the several maiden daughters of the house, and even the various fish that Professor Peddick and Colonel Mering swoon over (burdened with colorful names such as albino gudgeon, these fish, alas, all too frequently fall prey to Princess Arjumand). To Say Nothing of the Dog is a great book for readers who like memorable animals in their stories.
The human characters in the story are pretty great too. Ned is a real mensch of a hero, and Verity is more than his match, sensible and smart with a sense of humor. Most of the other characters function to some degree as comic relief or foils for the main characters; Tossie is particularly entertaining. She is quite dumb, rather mean and spoiled and given to vomitously inane baby talk with Princess Arjumand (and I say this as a cat-lover and occasional-baby-talk-to-cat-talker). But she ends up getting a satisfying and reasonable – well, I won’t even say comeuppance, since she isn’t really punished. The book has a fairly gentle attitude towards the foibles of its characters. Let’s just say she matures a bit in the course of the story, in a way that’s funny rather than treacly.
I also really liked Baine, the Merings’ long-suffering butler who possesses the patience of a saint. (at one point Ned wonders if Baine is reading Marx, before remembering that Marx was still unpublished at this point in history).
For reasons too byzantine (and probably spoilery) to go into here, Ned and Verity spend a lot of time trying to break Terence and Tossie up, but as with most of their exertions in the book, what needs to happen tends to happen almost in spite of, rather than because of their efforts. This fits in with the overall theme of time correcting itself, which itself fits into the larger theme of predestination vs. free will. As always, the humans believe that they have more control over their circumstances than they actually have.
The chief virtue of the book is its humor, though. A few favorite quotes:
The reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.
“People will buy anything at jumble sales,’ I said. ‘At the Evacuated Children Charity Fair a woman bought a tree branch that had fallen on the table.”
“Come here, cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum, would you? Meow. Meow.”
I’ll confess to being a tad lost on occasion in the course of the story about the time-travel stuff, and even though the author does a good job of explaining things in the end (without being too exposition-y about it), I was still confused by who took the bishop’s bird-stump, when and why. But I blame myself here; one of the reasons I don’t read much sci-fi is that I tend to run around in circles trying to make sure that I understand what’s happening, when I should probably just let the story unfold and not worry about it. I’ll give To Say Nothing of the Dog a straight A.
This is one of my favorite books ever. I’ve re-read it so many times that I almost have it memorized.
This is one of my very favorite SF books. :D I’d read all the time travel stories that come before it in the same universe, so I had some idea of how the tech worked and what was going on when I began, which is an advantage. (Having been an SF fan before I became a romance fan as well probably helped too.) I loved the characters — seeing things from Ned’s POV, especially when he’s time lagged, was wonderful. And the way she ties it all up in the end was awesome.
Reading this inspired me to read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog, and while it’s… well, Victorian, and tends to rather drag on in places, it also has a lot of great funny bits. If you read it after Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, there are a lot of fun flashes of recognition glee when you go, “Aha! That’s where she got that!” Or possibly where JKJ got it — time travel makes the causality a bit iffy. [grin]
I bought this book when DA offered it as daily deal, must bump it up in my TBR. Yeah, I loved ‘Three men in a boat” too.
Great review :).
Such a great book. I remember laughing so hard at the scene where the men are having a “light” picnic of nine courses and keep apologizing for roughing it with all the china and baked hams and things.
This book is just chock full of awesome! It’s a great SF time-travel story while being light-hearted and gently satirical and absurd and yes, a little romantic. I too was motivated to read Three Men in a Boat after reading TSNOTD, which I got after seeing it as a daily deal here. (Thanks for the inspiration DA!)
I love this book – so glad that you liked it too. I think it was my first Connie Willis – she’s a really interesting author, even though not every book I’ve read by her has worked for me. And this is one of my favorites.
For romance readers, I’d recommend Bellweather – it’s a bit dated, but it’s a lovely satire of 1990s era business and scientific culture, with a nice but understated romance. And her Christmas anthology Miracle is wonderful – not every story has a romance, but several do. And there’s a stand alone holiday novella called All Seated on the Ground that’s good too.
I listened to this book and loved everything about it. Yes, the time travel details can be confusing, but “just go with it” is not the worst thing I can say about a story; how else to recommend Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, for example? A light hand on the tiller works best in these cases.
This is one of my favorite books as well. I read “Doomsday Book” first. It is also excellent, but not light-hearted; you will probably cry before the end. Her WWII-set time travel novels “Blackout” and “All Clear” (really a single novel in two parts) are also excellent but emotionally wrenching. She deliberately plays with the chronology (jumping between different historians’ assignments at different times during the war) to make sure the reader knows less than some of the characters. It is cleverly done; I found myself re-reading them fairly soon after I’d finished the first time so I could appreciate what was really going on and how cleverly she’d disguised it.
I couldn’t get into Willis’ much-loved The Doomsday Book, so I don’t know if this one is for me.
@Janine: I didn’t really like Doomsday Book much, either (I recognized that it was very well-written, just didn’t connect) but I love this book. The tone is completely different. This is comedy with a nice understated romance, while I found the Doomsday Book to be a bit of a depressing drag.
You should definitely give a shot.
@JewelCourt: Thanks! I agree with “a bit of a depressing drag.” I never got far enough to reach the really depressing part but I found the pacing very slow; too meandering for me. Does To Say Nothing of the Dog get to the point a little faster?
It does meander a bit, but the meandering has a purpose: to frustrate Ned, the protagonist (in humorous way). The first time I read it, I was bit confused. You’re kind of dropped into the middle of the time travel element, but it was compelling enough for me to read on.
Connie Willis wrote four books and a novella that take place in the same time-travel universe and they all explore a different mood/tone to the idea of time travel. Although some characters reappear in other books, they also could stand alone (but worth reading them all) but the earlier books do a better job at setting up the “rules” of time travel. “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” is the comedy, “The Doomsday Book” is the tragedy, “Firewatch” is kind of a bridge story, and the “Blackout” / “All Clear” duet is the romantic, action-adventure reward you get after reading the other three.
As sad as Doomsday books was, it was a great read, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is really fun – I like both of them. But oh! Blackout/All Clear are my Christmas re-reads. I love those last two books (really it’s one long book that the publisher split into two) like I love my electric blanket on a Minnesota winter night.
@Janine – I’d say it’s faster paced, almost mad-cap, but the plot is quite meandering. It has kind of a Wodehouse feel, with nods to 1930s British mysteries as well. I loved The Doomsday Book as well as TSNOTD but found Black Out impossible to get into.
Willis is a goddess. Count me as a lover of Doomsday Book. Yes, it’s sad, but oh, it is wrenching and gripping. Bellwether made me laugh so hard. TSNOTD is such a charmer of a book. And Willis usually has some sort of romantic angle on her books, which speaks to the romance reader in me!
I listened to a The Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear on audiobook and I really liked them. The reading is really well done.
@Angie: I’m a little iffy on Three Men in a Boat only because I was talking to someone who it turned out had read the Willis book and was inspired to read the Jerome book by it and she said it was boring.
@Elizabeth Cole: Hah, I love how perplexed Ned is by all of the…stuff that seems to accompany Victorian life (well, I guess upper-class Victorian life). Just the description of all of the cases that need to be stacked on the boat and how difficult it is to fit them on and still have room for the passengers made me laugh.
@cleo: Ooh, I had no idea she had a Christmas anthology – I’ll have to look for that one! Thanks.
@Darlynne: I think at one time I had Willis and Fforde mixed up – reading TSNotD has revived my interest in his books, too (I’ve never read them).
I listened to To Say Nothing of The Dog as well. Stephen Crossley was brilliant as the narrator. It took me a little while to work out what was going on but when it clicked I realised that I was in a similar position to Ned after his “time-lag”. He didn’t understand what was going on either and he had to put things together from bits and pieces. It was funny, entertaining and a little bit romantic all wrapped up in a rollicking good story.
Janine – this book isn’t at all heavy. It’s deliberately confusing at the start but you kind of just need to go with it – I think it’s the kind of book you might really enjoy.
I also second the recommendation for Bellwether – the audio is also great. Kate Reading gets the comedic timing just right.
For those who have read/listened to All Clear/Blackout (I have them on the TBL I believe) – there is romance? there is a happy ending? I’ve been a bit scared to delve into them even though I’ve heard they’re very very good.
@Elinor Aspen: I’m a little scared of The Doomsday Book now, even though it sounds interesting. I don’t know; I don’t mind sad/wrenching books (at times, anyway) but the fact that what I liked so much about TSNotD was its lightness and humor makes me extra-wary of the content of TDB.
@Janine: It sounds like they’re very different, though humor can be tricky, so I don’t know if TSNotD would work for you or not.
I love everything Connie Willis has ever written, but this is definitely different because of the humor. Someone (I can’t remember who or where now) recently commented that Willis’s time travel didn’t work for them because the later-time historians have so many mid-communication issues that should be easily resolved with cell phones. I don’t remember ever thinking that, though; I just went with the awesome.
Um, “mis-communication issues.” Thanks, auto-correct.
@Jennie: Like I said, JKJ’s book is Victorian. They tended to ramble, and yeah, there were parts where I had to pull my attention back to the book because it wanted to wander. I’ll probably never read it again, but I’m glad I read it the one time.
@SonomaLass: I picked this up on the DA rec and loved it. The book was originally published long enough ago the some of the “future” technology is a bit off from what we have now. They had what amounted to Palm Pilots with built in printers, but no smart phones or internet. Because…. if they could have bought the bishop’s bird stump off eBay, where’s the story?
@Sandra: Umm, we definitely had internet back when this was first published. :)
@Kaetrin Yes, Blackout/All Clear definitely has a romance. I’d go as far as to say there are three romances in the story, but one of them is more of a very deep friendship between a Shakespearean actor in his 60s and one of the 20 something time researchers (it’s platonic, but still feels romantic – I can’t explain it any more than that). And while these love stories aren’t the main goal of the plot, and I wouldn’t at all characterize it as a romance novel, the love these particular characters have for each other drive the book to a happy ending (I can’t get into any more specifics without plot spoilers).
And while not every character lives through the book(s), and there are some dark moments – it is a WWII story after all – I thought it overall pretty uplifting.
Most criticisms of Blackout/All Clear say that it’s wordy and sometimes hard to follow. I didn’t think it was too wordy but It can get a little confusing because it not only jumps around between the 2060s and 1940s, and time travelers are referred to by their 1940s aliases.
@Kaetrin, I second everything KarenF said about the romance and HEA in Blackout/All Clear. One of the reasons I was so eager to re-read it after knowing the ending was to figure out how early one of the characters started having feelings for another one.
@SonomaLass, Willis tried to explain the lack of cellphones in the future by making a brief reference to the historians’ knowing that they emitted dangerous radiation (and so were presumably banned in the early 21st century). In the historians’ costume shop at Oxford University, there is a 1990s or 2000s utili-kilt ensemble with an attached cellphone. The costumer reassures another student by saying something like “It’s just a prop; it isn’t dangerous.”
@KarenF: @Elinor Aspen: Thx! I’ll have to move these up my TBL.
If I can toot my own horn for a sec, I wrote a piece about romance in Willis over at Heroes and Heartbreakers: http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2014/03/introduced-by-a-bellwether-romance-in-connie-willis . Kaetrin, you can safely read anything I mention there. ;-)
I actually didn’t care much for TSNOTD on first reading, perhaps because it is so very different from Doomsday Book, which is one of my most cherished books. On the second read, I started to appreciate the humor and sweetness.
I also wrote a Willis blog post, specific to her time-travel novels, which avoids spoilers: http://elinoraspen.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-praise-of-connie-willis-time-travel.html
I read the Doomsday Book and couldn’t get into it. It seemed to take forever for the heroine to figure out what time they’d been sent back to. But I love time travel books, so I might try this one. For a great time travel book with a bit of romance, I think Jack Finney’s Time and Again is fantastic.
I hope it is okay if I chime in to add that Connie Willis’ short stories are also well worth the purchase price.
“Inside Job”, “Even the Queen”, and “At the Rialto” are among my favorites, mostly because I enjoy comedies more than tragedies, but they are all excellent.