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Doomsday Book Mass Market Paperback – August 1, 1993
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Maybe I’m just hearing what I need to hear right now, but this book was about having faith in our fellow human beings. And about the importance of living up to the faith others put in us. About caring and community and refusing to give up on one another.
I loved the details in this story, especially the bells that tie together the past and the present/future and communicate the rhythms, peaks, and valleys of human experience. I also related to the main characters. The middle portion of the story dragged quite a bit as Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy both struggle to solve their respective problems and are repeatedly thwarted, but I felt thoroughly rewarded for my patience in the end.
I wondered as I read, "why did Ms. Willis write this book? What's the point? After I finish it, what will I say this book did well?" The answer, apparently: to allow the reader to experience the desperation and hopelessness that plague-ravished towns in rural Europe went through during the 14th century. If the Amazon blurb had said this, I wouldn't have bought it.
Kivrin stays in the manor of Guillaume D’Iverie with his mother, wife, and daughters who have fled the plague. D’Iverie betrothed his eldest daughter, Rosemund, to a local knight, Sir Bloet. When Kivrin discovers the details of Rosemund’s engagement, she reflects on her research, “Girls in the 1300s had frequently been betrothed before they were of age, sometimes even at birth” and these betrothals “had been a business arrangement, a way to join lands and enhance social standing,” though “girls weren’t usually married till they were fourteen or fifteen, certainly not before they started exhibiting signs of maturation” (pg. 254). Rosemund’s betrothal to Sir Bloet benefits D’Iverie’s family due to Bloet’s extreme wealth, as evidenced by his bride gifts of a golden brooch inset with rubies and various brass and silver trinkets. In this system, “the carrying on of the line was the all-important concern” and “the younger the woman, the better her chance of producing enough heirs that one at least would survive to adulthood, even if its mother didn’t” (pg. 309). After the plague kills Bloet and his entourage, Kivrin remarks on Rosemund’s fate, “Rosemund would be sold off to some nobleman the king owed a debt to or whose alliegance he was trying to buy, one of the troublesome supporters of the Black Prince, perhaps, and taken God knew where to God knew what situation. There were worse things than a leering old man and a shrewish sister-in-law. Baron Garnier had kept his wife in chains for twenty years. The Count of Anjou had burned his alive” (pg. 500). Kivrin’s observations recall Boccaccio’s contemporary portrayal of marriage in “The Decameron” as a business transaction in which the wife became the property of the husband. Furthermore, Kivrin witnesses what happens when a wife fails to conform to the expectations of her when Kivrin discovers that D’Iverie’s servant Gawyn is “obviously in love with his lord’s wife,” Eliwys (pg. 204). D’Iverie’s mother knows of Eliwys and Gawyn’s feelings and, when plague strikes, she accuses them of bringing it, saying, “The Lord punishes adulterers and all their house…as he now punishes you. It is your sin that has brought the plague here” (pg. 426). While husbands philandered with impunity, wives were expected to remain chaste and faithful and, when they failed, they easily became scapegoats for social misfortunes.
These domestic elements are what make Willis’s writing particularly compelling. If one is willing to suspend disbelief about time travel, Willis recreates the day-to-day lives of people from the past in a manner that feels authentic without being too analytical or too vague. Further, Kivrin’s initial disorientation helps the reader as Willis reveals the world to us in pieces, allowing the reader to adapt just as Kivrin does. This is a fun, clever time-travel story that will encourage readers to do some research into the history after they finish the fiction.
Like To Say Nothing of the Dog, it is an excellent portrayal of the time and place in history to which it travels. But Doomsday Book is aptly named. While Connie Willis fills the pages with comic tidbits along the way, the primary story arc is far from comic. Don't get me wrong; it is an excellent story, and very hard to put down. But it is poignant and painful. It forces the reader to think about just how terrible is the death of each human being - each so unique, and entirely unreplaceable.