“I think that it's a good sign that we not only want happy endings for ourselves, but for the people we love, both real and fictional: for Connor and Abby on Primeval, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and Kate and Petrucio, and Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane,” Connie Willis wrote in an undelivered speech printed in The Best of Connie Willis.
Willis is a speculative fiction writer who, like Lois McMaster Bujold, loves story in all genres; within the basic science fiction framework, her work encompass westerns, young adult, detective stories, Christmas stories, absurdist humor and perhaps most of all, romance. You won't find steamy scenes in her books, and you can't always rely on happy ever afters—one of her most heartbreaking recurring themes is of women fulfilling an important dream or destiny, leaving behind grieving men who love them. But Willis is also a fan of romantic comedy, and those just have to end well.
Romances generally happen in a low-key fashion in Willis stories, in the background of other events, most often while the main character and a likable member of the opposite sex are trying to solve some kind of puzzle. The usual signifiers of romance like obvious physical attraction tend to get short shrift, because they're too busy working together—while battling bureaucracy and red tape and obnoxious authority figures—yet the bits of their more tender emotions that sneak through are perfectly satisfying in context. Here's a scene from the end of “All Seated on the Ground,” in which a journalist who's inadvertently wound up in charge of a group of recalcitrant space aliens gets help from a choir director:
I picked up Calvin's baton and handed it to him. “What do you think we should sing first?” he asked me.
“All I want for Christmas is you,” I said.
“Really? I was thinking maybe we should start with ‘Angels We have Heard on High,’ or —”
“That wasn't a song title,” I said.
For Willis, that's positively straightforward. Subtext is often key to the formation of a Willis romance and perhaps never more than in the clever short story “Miracle,” which is pretty much all subtext. Lauren is simply trying to get her Christmas chores dealt with so she can focus on getting the attention of the cute guy she works with, when a “Spirit of Christmas Present” shows up, magically changing all the gifts she bought into exactly the wrong things, making a tree grow out of her kitchen floor, and generally spreading chaos.
Lauren seeks help from a less conventionally attractive coworker — generally known as Fat Fred—with no idea that he has a Christmas wish of his own, one he never expects to receive. Amid trying to repair the damage done by the spirit and discussing the relative merits of It's a Wonderful Life vs. Miracle on 34th Street” with Fred, Lauren makes discoveries about the meaning of Christmas, the nature of attraction, and what her heart truly desires.
There are no obviously romantic declarations in this story; everything that happens builds on all the previous events and conversations, framed by the plots of the movies. Even Lauren and Fred's most intimate moment happens via one of the movies, our pretty much dependable familiarity with it bringing intensity to a simple scene:
“Can you help me with this ribbon?” Fred said.
“Sure,” Lauren said. She scooted close to him and put her finger on the crossed ribbon to hold it taut.
Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were standing very close together, listening to the telephone. The voice on the phone was saying something about soybeans.
Fred still hadn't tied the knot. Lauren glanced up at him. He was looking at the TV too.
Jimmy Stewart was looking at Donna Reed, his face nearly touching her hair. Donna Reed looked at him and then away. The voice from the phone was saying something about the chance of a lifetime, but it was obvious neither of them was hearing a word. Donna Reed looked up at him. His lips almost touched her forehead. They didn't seem to be breathing.
Lauren realized she wasn't either. She looked at Fred. He was holding the two ends of ribbon, one in each hand, and looking down at her.
“The knot,” she said. “You haven't tied it.”
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”
Jimmy Stewart dropped the phone with a clatter and grabbed Donna Reed by both arms. He began shaking her, yelling at her, and then suddenly she was wrapped in his arms, and he was smothering her with kisses.
“The knot,” Fred said. “You have to pull your finger out.”
She looked uncomprehendingly at him and then down at the package. He had tied the knot over her finger, which was still pressing against the wrapping paper.
“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and pulled her finger free. “You were right. It does have its moments.”
Willis uses literary allusions rather then movies in the hilarious time travel adventure To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which she brings the romance with the science fiction equivalent of a drunk scene. The normally cool and collected Verity's defenses are down because of too many time travel trips in a short time:
“How does oo stan' your mistwess talking ootsy-cutesy baby talk to o?”
Verity said. “Oo ought to swat her when her does it.”
“Verity,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m perfectly all right,” she said, still playing with the cat’s paws. “Where’s Terence?” she said, starting toward the lawn. “I need to tell him he can’t be in love with Tossie because the fate of the free world is at stake. Also,” her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “she cheats at croquet.”
“How many drops have you had?” I demanded.
She frowned. “Sixteen. No, eight. Twelve.” She peered at me. “It isn’t fair, you know.”
“What isn’t?” I said warily.
“Your boater. It makes you look just like Lord Peter Wimsey, especially when you tilt it forward like that.” She started for the lawn.
I took Princess Arjumand away from Verity, dumped her on the ground, and grabbed Verity’s arm.
“I need to find Tossie,” she said. “I have a thing or two to tell her.”
“Not a good idea,” I said. “Let’s sit down a minute. In the gazebo.” I led her toward it.
She came docilely. “The first time I ever saw you, I thought, he looks just like Lord Peter Wimsey. You were wearing that boater and—no, that wasn’t the first time,” she said accusingly. “The first time was in Mr. Dunworthy’s office, and you were all covered in soot. You were still adorable, though, even if your mouth was hanging open.” She looked at me quizzically. “Did you have a mustache?”
“No,” I said, leading her up the gazebo steps.
“Verity,” I said firmly and took the ribbon away from her. “I want you to lie down and rest now.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I have to go steal Tossie’s diary and find out who Mr. C is and then I have to go tell Mr. Dunworthy. I have to repair the incongruity.”
“There’s plenty of time for that,” I said. “First you need to sleep.” I pulled a slightly mildewed cushion out from under the prow and placed it on the seat.
“You lie down right here.”
She lay down obediently and put her head on the pillow. “Lord Peter took a nap,” she said. “Harriet watched him sleep, and that’s when she knew she was in love with him.”
She sat up again. “Of course I knew it from the second page of Strong Poison, but it took two more books for Harriet to figure it out. She kept telling herself it was all just detecting and deciphering codes and solving mysteries together, but I knew she was in love with him. He proposed in Latin. Under a bridge. After they solved the mystery. You can’t propose till after you’ve solved the mystery. That’s a law in detective novels.”
I watched Verity sleep. It was almost as restful as sleeping myself. The boat rocked gently, and the sun through the leaves flickered softly in patterns of light and shade. She slept peacefully, quietly, her face still and untroubled in repose. And I was going to have to face it. No matter how much sleep I got or she didn’t, she was always going to look like a naiad to me. Even lying there with her greenish-brown eyes closed and her mouth half-open, drooling gently onto a mildewed boat cushion, she was still the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
The partners in detection pattern breaks in the more serious duology Blackout and All Clear, set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has an exceptionally quiet (even for Willis) portrait of unswerving devotion — a promise kept by a sleeping beauty's prince who “fought battles and spells and brambles and time.” (The last in more ways than one.)
Willis gets closer to genre romance than usual with the very funny and delightful look at individuality and inspiration, Bellwether. (Although there is also Promised Land, in which an alien planet's inheritance law means a woman winds up being married without even knowing it…) Sandra Foster is a social scientist who studies fads for the corporation to end all corporations, the ultimate home for buzzwords, team-building exercises, and promoted incompetence; her bête noire is Flip, an office assistant who invariably leaves utter confusion in her wake. (Another common Willis theme.) A wrongly delivered package takes Sandra to the lab of chaos theorist Bennet O'Reilly, where she's fascinated to meet someone who's seemingly immune to fads:
When you spend as much time as I do analyzing fads and fashions, you get so you can spot them at first sight: eco-hippie, jogger, Wall Street M.B.A., urban terrorist. Dr. O'Reilly wasn't any of them. He was about my age and about my height. He was wearing a lab coat and corduroy pants that had been washed so often the wale was completely worn off on the knees. They'd shrunk, too, halfway up his ankles, and there was a pale line where they'd been let down.
The effect, especially with the Coke-bottle glasses, should have been science geek, but it wasn't… And there was something else, something I couldn't put my finger on, that made it impossible for me to categorize him.
Like many other Willis couples, Sandra and Ben bond over being the seemingly only sane people in a world gone mad, as well as over their struggles with their current projects; finding some overlap in their research allows Sandra to help him when Flip screws up his funding—and to keep trying to investigate his immunity to fads. Then Sandra realizes that she's interested in far more than Ben's research and unusual clothing choices:
“Secondly,” Management said, “I've some excellent news to share with you regarding the Neibnitz Grant. Dr. Alicia Turnbll has been working with us on a game plan that we're going to implement today. But first I want all of you to choose a partner —”
Ben grabbed my hand.
“—and stand facing each other."
We stood and I put my hands up, palms facing out. ”If we have to say three things we like about sheep, I'm quitting.”
“All right, HiTekkers,” Management said, “now I want you to give your partners a big hug.”
“The next big trend at HiTek will be sexual harassment,” I said lightly, and Ben took me in his arms.
“Come on now,” Management said. “Not everybody's participating. Big hug.” Ben's arms in the faded plaid sleeves pulled me close, enfolded me. My hands, caught up in that palms out silliness, went around his neck. My heart began to pound.
“A hug says, ‘Thank you for working with me,’” Management said. “A hug says, ‘I appreciate your personness.’”
My cheek was against Ben's ear. He smelled faintly of sheep. I could feel his heart pounding, the warmth of his breath on my neck. My breath caught, like a hiccuping engine, and stalled.
There is much to love about Willis's work—the ingenuity, the surprises, the tenderness and humanity, the humor, the way she points out nonsense we've been buying without even realizing it. (See the biting commentary on prejudice against smokers as a fad in Bellwether.) How wonderful to have all those things, and romance too.