London : Arrowsmith, 1889.
New York: Bantam, 1997.
I read these two novels on successive Sundays, for no challenge at all but just because I wanted to! As you can guess from the titles, Willis was inspired by Jerome's book, which she first became acquainted with through Robert Heinlein.
I'd heard quite a few people mentioning the Willis book lately, but really thought I should read Three Men first. I'm very glad I did, and so close together, as I then caught many of Willis' references -- which were very amusing. Actually both books were amusing, a nice shot of entertaining humor in between the 'serious' novels I'm immersed in.
Three Men in A Boat is about, surprisingly enough, three men -- undergraduates in fact, who feel that they need a recuperative break. So they decide that a nice boat trip up the Thames to Oxford and back would be just the thing. You can imagine how it all goes; bad steering, collisions, sleeping out in the rain, etc., all wryly told in an everyday style of speech. Jerome's use of the colloquial in this book was quite new at the time, and was critically sneered at as appealing to the " 'Arry & 'Arriets". I found it quite lively, even though from time to time he lapses into set pieces of flowery, purple prose, about History or about some Idea. I'm not quite sure whether he is seriously trying to be 'meaningful' with these bits or is satirizing the very prose found in contemporary books. In any case, it is a delightfully funny Victorian book, which reminded me somewhat of Weedon & George Grossmith's 1892 "Diary of a Nobody", a book which made me laugh out loud. Worth the reading, even if I'd suggest taking it in doses rather than all in one day - too much humour at once does make it pall a bit.
As for To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis won a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula award for this novel. I've still seen a number of negative reviews about it, but personally I loved it, couldn't stop reading it and wished I could start over afresh once I'd done. I really enjoyed the set-up: it is 2057 and historians time-travel through something known as The Net in order to research the past. Although she glosses over the particulars of how all this works, Willis still presents a lively story which moves along at a rapid clip from 2057 to WWII to Victorian England and beyond. If you aren't too picky about scientific explanations of an imaginary world, you will be okay with this.
As the story begins, we find Ned Henry in WWII Coventry, trying to find an objet known as the Bishop's Bird Stump. In his world of 2057, corporations have discovered there is no way to make money out of the Net, so the researchers depend on private interests for funding. One of these financial backers is Lady Schrapnell, a bully of a woman who has decided to rebuild Coventry Cathedral in all its glory (it having been destroyed in the air raids of WWII). Her favourite catchphrase is "God is in the Details", and so she endlessly sends anyone available into the past to ascertain those details. Small problem -- excessive time travel leads to 'time-lag', a disorienting illness which can only be cured with rest. In the first chapter, Ned is sent back to his own time to recuperate from a bad case, showing symptoms such as Difficulty in Distinguishing Sounds, Slowness in Answering, and Maudlin Sentimentality(the last sounding suspiciously like Jerome K. Jerome in his flights of fancy). However, Ned knows he won't be able to escape Lady Schrapnell long enough to recuperate, so his superiors order him back to Victorian England for a rest, if only he will do something for them first. He is so time-lagged that he does not know what they have asked him to do or who is to meet him in Victorian England. This leads to his dilemma -- mistaking a young undergraduate at the train station for his contact, Ned goes off on a boating trip down the river with him. They, of course, run across the three men in a boat coming the opposite way, and Ned's astonishment (being a great fan of the book) is such that he runs their boat into the bank -- an episode which makes it into Three Men in a Boat. References to the book abound, and both the chapter headings and the very feel of Willis' Victorian world come directly from Jerome's example. Ned then meets the beautiful Verity (his real contact), he runs afoul of Lady Schrapnell's great-great-great grandmother, and he discovers the infamy of butlers. Other novels are also referenced, notably Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsy detective stories, and Agatha Christie, and all of it is rollicking fun. Oh yes, and Ned and Verity do save the space-time continuum while rescuing drowning cats, arranging the love lives of Victorians and running church jumble sales. I know I will be reading this again!