Customer Review

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars *Nearly* perfect, 24 Mar 2004
This review is from: To Say Nothing of the Dog (Bantam Spectra Book) (Mass Market Paperback)
This book is a hoot! Time-travel romantic comedy, with literary allusions stirred in to taste. Most of the characters are stereotypes, but not badly-done, and I'm glad she's rationed the effusions of the mawkish Victorian maiden.
I could guess some but not all of the plot, and when I realised who the Victorian maiden was going to fall in love with—and why she had an aesthetic epiphany about the bishop's bird stump—I was hugging myself with delight as I saw the plot unreeling before me. In fact, like the ideal of a Golden Age mystery novel, it's very fair in putting out the clues, but for a lot of the time the reader is as bemused as the characters.
There are a succession of very Wodehouse-esque butlers who manage to be entertaining (in a dignified manner) throughout.
Animal-lovers will also enjoy this story; Willis has a light but accurate touch with both the dog and cat characters, and the reaction of the time-travelling protagonist to hearing his first purr is particularly nicely done.
There is only one thing that seriously annoys me about this book, which is the poor use of British English. It won't necessarily annoy the sort of Americans who aren't aficionados of British culture, but I'm not sure if they're the intended audience. Also, younger British people may well have watched enough American films and television that American turns of phrase come naturally to them. Any Brit of 30 or older, however, may be slightly jolted out of the willing-suspension-of-disbelief approximately once per page by the American usages (and let's face it, in this sort of fantasy-pastiche-comedy the w.s. of d. needs careful handling). I spent the first half of the book wondering if the protagonist was meant to be an American, then decided that the language was meant to be future-UK-English-more-influenced-by-American-than-at-present, and finally realised that she hadn't quite got it right when, in the Victorian setting, the peppery old Colonel, the credulous matron and the eccentric old Professor all use American turns of phrase. It's distracting because, in a time-travel story, anachronisms and social or verbal details are often part of the plot. She's done very well with a lot of it: verbal tics appropriate to the ex-military old gentleman, the Professor with a monomania, the poetic young gentleman and the mawkish maiden are all put in—which means it startles the reader when they all use 'gotten' and 'go [verb]' instead of 'go and [verb]'.
I don't think it's the business of the writer to Know Everything, of course, but it's sad to see a flaw like this getting in the way when a decent copy-editor could and should have fixed it—and God is in the details, as one of the characters remarks, and the writer should be aiming at affectionate-hommage rather than a theme-park version of British culture.
I'd give it five stars (not timeless-lit-classic but excellent-example-of-its-kind) if I wasn't so annoyed by the distracting language.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 19 Aug 2008 09:53:06 BDT
Greg Sheaf says:
I agree completely! A great read let down by simple things like "write" instead of "write to", airplane, gasoline etc., which completely grated, especially as the author gave a fairly good picture of Oxford and Cov. All she needed was a British copy editor and it would have been perfect.
Don't see the tube (apart from the Oxford Tube coach) ever reaching Oxford though :)

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Dec 2011 12:23:12 GMT
Last edited by the author on 6 Dec 2011 12:25:08 GMT
I have to also agree, and it's a great pity because the author was clearly doing her best. I could happily ignore "railroad", "passenger cars" and even "schedule" (for "timetable") although that gave me pause. It was the "gotten" that got me. No Gentleman, Victorian or Late-ish C21 would ever dare utter so uneducated a vocable! Dog forbid! This does of course raise the deeper question of what sort of language to use in literature set in times and places outside the readers' everyday environment. We would hardly expect a novel about Robin Hood to be written in Middle English or one about Caesar to be in Latin (would we?) I suppose ultimately the only yardstick is consistency. The writer is clearly writing an English tale set in that most English of places, Oxford, and that most cut-glass English of times, the Victorian era, so it follows the language needs to be English through and through and any deviation should be deliberate and significant. Thus an English reader is periodically annoyed and jarred. A decent English editor is all that would have been needed. Why spoil the ship for want of a hapence of tar? For it is indeed otherwise a most excellent vessel :-)

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Sep 2012 18:07:39 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Sep 2012 18:08:55 BDT
H. Ashford says:
I couldn't agree more. I've read a number of Connie Willis's books, set in both Cambridge and Oxford - and I always wondered why she chooses to set them inthe UK given her use of American English and her poor understanding of our customs. Why doesn't she just set them in Harvard or Yale???

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2013 14:11:01 BDT
For the record, and the benefit of other potential readers, I couldn't agree less with these comments about the language. I'm not dismissing them, as I'm normally very sensitive to this sort of thing, and if they put you guys off, so be it, but they won't have that effect on everyone. Oh, and I'm English, before you ask. Toodle-pip.
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