Rating - 2.5: parts of it are worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is definitely a 3.
Three men take a holiday along the Thames. With their careful planning and manly spirit, what could possibly go wrong?
This is a good bit of writing that has the misfortune of being stuck in a story. The tone is excellent, and the little comic scenes are mostly effective. The characters tell charming vignettes that digress heartily. Then the frame story of going down the river re-inserts itself to bore you for a few pages.
If the genre of which this is a sometimes-farce had survived, the plot might have some value to a modern audience. The narrator gives useful (and even possibly true) bits of English history as he goes along the river, along with poetic ruminations upon virtue and the happy life. This, I am told, was a common sort of travel guide of the time, pointing out bits of historical interest along the river. Here, it is not particularly funny, educational, or even good.
The strength of the book is in digression and in the tone. It is a light Victorian comedy in which fools are too full and sure of themselves. The narrative voice makes excellent work of showing the characters for fools while letting them never see themselves that way, although they certainly see it in each other. And then there are some good bits with a troublesome dog. People love a bit with a dog.
You know roughly how this must go from every vacation or road trip film/book you have seen/read. The great preparations are obviously inadequate or actively harmful; they will cause problems in ways foreseeable and surprising. Their resolutions to do X, Y, and Z will be slept through at best, destructively pursued at worst. They will fight, and bet on how many times someone will fall out of the boat. And through all the squabbling and silliness, it will remain light and funny.
I wrote that paragraph before they even got in the boat. Editing before posting, I have not needed to change a single letter.
The digressions are the best part, in which someone will take a paragraph or page to tell a story that might wander away from the point and never look back. There is a four-page tale about a smelly cheese of the narrator's past acquaintance. The comic scenes are less entertaining, unless you are a fan of slapstick and physical humor (in text).
The tone is what sells it all. It develops in a way that is difficult to excerpt briefly. The best bits will mix high speech that goes on for just the right amount of "too long" before crashing on the pithy shoals of its own idiocy. The narrator engages in eloquence about the joys of sleeping on the banks of a river under the moonlight until reminded of the existence of rain; he grumbles about his companion's lack of poetry until everyone agrees that, yes, that would suck. The characters express base motives with the most high-minded language. They rationalize brilliantly. They speak of their love of hard work, how they love to supervise someone doing it and tell him how to do it properly.
It begins strongly, with little interference from the plot. As they spend more time on the river, the author feels it necessary to talk about the river and history and the sights and other stuff you're not here for. In a film version, you would pan the scenery for ten to fifteen seconds and then get on with it; here, we might have six pages about King John blocking us from the next entertaining bit.
I recommend reading the opening then, once they are in the boat, skimming over the weak history and philosophy in favor of the digressions and incidents. Supposedly, they all more or less happened to Jerome K. Jerome and his two companions. The anecdotes remain charming to the end, perhaps enough to rate a 3 despite the travel guide bits that drag down the average.
I am told that the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, has better comic scenes but was not received as well, in part due to the lack of a narrative thread holding them together. That sounds like exactly what this book needed, and I will pursue it.
free online edition