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Connie Willis – Bellwether

Title: Bellwether
Author: Connie Willis

Before reading Bellwether, Connie Willis was know to me as the author of To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, both high-quality works of fiction, but displaying different kinds of talent. With Bellwether, Connie Willis further proves that she is a very skilled author indeed, here taking on the satire/comedy genre. This was indeed apparent in To Say Nothing of the Dog as well, but here it’s the main theme instead of extra flavour.

In Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Sandra Foster is researching fads and trends, or, more precisely, what causes them. She is stuck in her research, but things in her environment (like a mail clerk from hell and a slightly neurotic management) keep her alert whether she likes it or not. She has to fight her way through a world ridden with fads, compulsive behaviour and outright madness, and, she has to make progress with her work in order to secure her research grant.

The problem with summarising the plot of this novel is that it completely misses the point. The main force behind this novel is Willis’ sharp sense of satire and irony, which almost miraculously never fails her. It’s not that the novel is funny in a way that can be quoted, but rather that each and every sentence carries the overall hilarity and truthfulness of the situation (for even if the story in Bellwether is exaggerated, it’s never too far away from the real world). Needless to say, fads are central both to the humour and to the plot, but Willis’ mastery of irony goes far beyond this, making each chapter interesting. This short novel contains no boring passages and no chapters that are simply there to get somewhere else.

Another merit of Bellwether is that it uses hilarity to discuss fairly serious (and sad) phenomena in human society; this isn’t simply a lightweight novel meant to be read only for fun, it actually has a message and a topic which it attempts to highlight and discuss. I think that personally I’m quite distanced to a lot of fads, but I still feel the weight of what Willis says in this novel. Fads are ubiquitous enough to be relevant for everybody, and so this novel should feel relevant for a lot of people.

Conclusively, I like this novel to the point that I’m close to giving it five snails. I won’t do that, however, because of some minor details i don’t quite like (such as the ending). Also, even though Connie Willis’ discussion of fads is highly interesting, the punch of the conclusion is somehow not commensurate with that of the discussion itself. However, four and a half snails is a good rating, increasing the authors average to above four over three books. Not bad, not at all.

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  1. Nebula51’s avatar

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on most of this review–except, how could you not like the ending? I thought it was perfect!


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I think there are two reasons. The first is that Willis builds up a feeling of anticipation throughout the novel. What kind of dark secret about the nature of man has the main character stumbled upon? If you read the text on the the dust cover, it sounds like it should be something original and that feeling is reinforced throughout the book. The problem is that the ending isn’t that great or that original, making the ending something of an anticlimax.

      The second reason is that ending feels too well-arranged. I know, this is probably a feature of the genre, but it still doesn’t suit me very well. This is mere taste, of course, and I don’t think any less of Connie Willis because of this.