This is the first Willis I've read not set in her time-travelling historians of Oxford world, though there are a lot of similarities. It's clear to me by now that Willis has a shtick. Take some annoying characters, have the protagonists go to comical lengths to avoid said annoying characters, have the whole plot hinge on failures of communication, and add in some meticulous historical research, and you've got a Willis novel. And there's nothing wrong with that. Most writers have shticks; the question is whether they can engage a reader enough with plot, character, and prose to keep them coming back anyway.
The setting this time in a hospital in contemporary Colorado (Willis's home). Joanna Lander is a psychologist studying Near-Death Experiences, the whole light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel phenomenon. She works in close quarters with a true believer named Mandrake, who is convinced that these NDEs prove the existence of an afterlife (and psychic powers). Mandrake and his star subject Mrs. Davenport are the prime annoying characters that the protagonists must avoid at all costs this go round. When a neurologist named Richard Wright shows up at the hospital with a plan to study the biochemistry of NDEs, Joanna jumps on board against Mandrake's objections. Wright has found a drug that can simulate the effects of Near-Death Experience on the brain, and, eventually, Joanna agrees to become a subject. As each simulated NDE brings her further into what feels like a real experience of an actual historical event, Joanna struggles to maintain her objectivity and frantically dodges through the corridors of the hospital to try to understand exactly what her experience means.
Why does she move frantically through the hospital? Because Connie Willis thinks it's funner that way, I guess. There's a lot of manufactured drama here. At first, it makes a fairly mundane science thriller into more of a page turner - the fact that Joanna has to sneak, run, and dodge her way through the hospital for tiny tidbits of information makes things a bit more exciting. After a few hundred pages, however, I really wanted to yell, "Good God everybody! Get some $%#@*^ing cellphones and have a $%#@*^ing direct conversation for once!" Joanna, you don't have to take a taxi to the parking lot to avoid Mandrake. You can say "I'm not interested in your work, and I have other things to do." It's easy! The novel sort of exhausted me, and I started to get the feeling that everything was spinning in place as Willis goes to great lengths to keep her mysteries going. The last part is especially frustrating, as it involves characters reconstructing information that we already know. We have to see the same hundred-page investigation twice!
That said, I couldn't stay mad at Willis for long. Her dialog, as always, is naturalistic yet clever, and genuinely funny and charming, and her core characters are typically lovable (does she make the ancillary characters so petty and awful just to make the main characters more attractive in contrast?). A dying young girl named Maisie, who is obsessed with disasters, is particularly smart and funny. And, as I've said, writing awful people is a real writer's skill, even if it's not one that I always enjoy reading. The core mysteries are interesting, and there are a couple of bold choices here. I knew in a book about Near-Death Experiences that someone important is going to face death themselves, and Willis heavily foreshadows how this is likely to happen in the hospital. But who faces death, how it happens, and the outcome took me completely by surprise. This novel managed to shock me. I also thought it was bold of Willis to write a direct, secular confrontation with the meaning of death. She has a lot of opportunities to give herself an out, but she remains a committed skeptic to the very end.
In the end, I liked the novel, though I was often frustrated by it. I think it could have been a lot better at about 2/3rds the length. I'd recommend it to Willis fans, but I'd guide Willis newcomers to To Say Nothing of the Dog instead.