Aug 11, 2014

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow RowellLandline’s protagonist, Georgie McCool, has been married to Neal for fifteen years. The two still love each other deeply, but their relationship has been going through a rough patch. It’s nearly Christmas, and they have plans to go to Neal’s parents’ home in Omaha, Nebraska for the holidays. However, just before they’re due to depart, Georgie gets the professional opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to run her own sitcom, if only she and her writing partners can finish and deliver an impressive pilot in the next few days.

Making this happen means Georgie has to say in LA, and Neal goes to Nebraska with their two young daughters. Spending the holidays apart due to circumstances doesn’t mean their marriage is doomed, but as time goes by and Neal doesn’t answer or return her calls, Georgie grows anxious. One evening, Georgie finally gets through to Neal. She’s calling him from the old rotary phone in her room at her mother’s house, and it soon becomes evident that she’s not speaking to present-day Neal but to Neal fifteen years before — Neal from the Christmas holiday when he proposed to her. This link to the past seems like a chance for Georgie to fix her marriage before it goes wrong, but what does “going wrong” mean, exactly? And if given another chance, should Georgie make the same choices that led her to the present day? Is her marriage to Neal worth it, or would they have been better off apart?

Rainbow Rowell’s Landline goes on not so much to answer these questions but to interrogate the premises they are based on. This novel is more Attachments than Eleanor & Park or Fangirl, which is absolutely fine by me: it has everything I loved about Attachments (the characters you ache for, the smart and thoughtful and gorgeous writing about love and intimacy, the warmth and the touches of humour) minus the premise I can’t get over. The premise of this one — a magical telephone connected to the past — is one I’ll very happily embrace, because hey, awesome stories! They’re allowed anything.

Reading Landline made me feel like someone had taken most of the items on my romance wishlist, wrapped them up in bright shiny paper, added a pretty bow, and handed this novel to me as a gift. This is a story that deals with the everyday reality of long-term intimacy rather than with the first flash of connection and the excitement of falling in love. As I keep saying, it’s not that I’m not interested in the latter; it’s just that I crave more stories about the former. Love doesn’t become a non-event when it’s no longer new, and I love finding fiction that acknowledges that.

Georgie and Neal’s relationship subverts traditional gender roles in the sense that she’s the one with the demanding and time-consuming career that has to be juggled with family time, whereas he’s a stay-at-home dad who craves Georgie’s time and attention. This flip and the way it was taken for granted were very interesting to me; yet on the other hand I know that as personal as they are, Georgie and Neal’s arrangements do have some wider implications. Because they deviate from what’s expected, they put a kind of pressure on Georgie that is unlike what a man would experience in her place. Our world still perceives (and treats) a woman who’s more absent than she’d like because of work very differently than a man in the exact same circumstances, and this is the sort of thing that tends to get inside people’s heads.

There’s a whole story that could be told around this, but that story is not Landline. Landline leaves the social angle aside, and while I can understand how this might disappoint some readers (it wasn’t so long ago, after all, that I was talking about how something that touches on the same sort of issue of personal vs social focus was a deal-breaker in a different story), the intensely personal focus nevertheless worked for me in this case. This is a story about how a couple negotiates life’s demands, rather than a story about the pressures put on women with careers; as before, I want the latter, but I want the former too. Of course, the distinction is to a large degree illusory, as one will inevitably impact the other, but I’m more than willing to embrace Landline for what it is, because what it is proved so immensely satisfying.

Rainbow Rowell’s exploration of married love is just so affectionate and lovely. Georgie is in love with Neal, and that love permeates everything. There are problems, yes, but there’s also a lot of warmth, and the end result is a perfect illustration of how (I love Kristin Cashore’s wording so much that I’m going to borrow it at every opportunity) “every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself”. Fifteen years later, Georgie and Neal are still working out the rules of their universe — this is, after all, a project for a lifetime.

I love how much attention Landline gives to the process of making your life fit with another person’s; of choosing to make things works day after day. I love how it focuses on the different undercurrents that always exist in an intimate relationship, and on how you work through the bad not to get to the good, but because the good is always there alongside it and makes it worth pulling through.

One thing I would have liked to see is a more detailed unpacking of Neal’s jealousy of Georgie’s best friend Seth. The two do talk about it, and it’s not like Neal tells Georgie “you can’t be best friends with a man” or any such nonsense, but I still wanted more because this is something I’m infinitely interested in. How do you strike a balance between sensitivity to someone feelings and care with the things that might make them feel insecure and the establishment of boundaries that safeguard your own well-being and freedom of movements? How did Georgie make sure that her knowledge of Neal’s insecurity didn’t poison her every interaction with Seth, a person who’s also hugely important in her life? Each couple negotiates these things differently, and I could easily have read a whole novel about that.

Still, Landline is for the most part the exact kind of romance I like, and Rainbow Rowell’s usual strong writing and characterisation really make it stand out. Also, there’s a Fangirl cameo! Don’t you want to read it for that alone?

Bits I loved:
“Nobody’s lives just fit together,” Neal said. “Fitting together is something you work at. It’s something you make happen—because you love each other.”
“But…” Georgie stopped herself. She didn’t want to talk Neal out of this, even if he was wrong. Even if she was the only one who knew how wrong he was.
He sounded exasperated. “I’m not saying that everything will magically work out if people love each other enough…”
If we love each other enough, Georgie heard.
“I’m just saying,” he went on, “maybe there’s no such thing as enough.”

You don’t know what it really means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten—in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
She didn’t know that at twenty-three.

Georgie couldn’t change the past—she could only talk at it. If Georgie had a proper time machine, maybe she could actually fix her marriage. She could go back to the moment that everything started to go bad, and change course.
There hadn’t really been a moment like that.
Things didn’t go bad between Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad—and always good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And then, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they’d tipped so far into bad, they’d settled there. Now only an enormous amount of good would shift them back. An impossible amount of good.
They read it too: Capricious Reader



  1. Ah, thank you so much for joining me in loving this, because there has been so much blogger non-love for this one, but I just finished it and loved it also!

  2. I figured Jill would be happy about this review. There is an angry mob of us that thought Neal was acting like a 12 year old, fussing over her work commitments, even though she is the bread-winner. For those of us that stay home and deal with the kids, the housework and drudgery, this is the price you pay to support the working spouse. I finished this book more than annoyed. But I loved the side characters. They made the story for me.

  3. I love Rowell and can't wait to read this!

  4. I just bought this one. I've been loving her other books so I'm excited for this one.

  5. Jill: I'm very behind on blog reading and somehow missed it all! I'm happy to hear you loved it too and look forward to your thoughts (as always).

    Sandy: I think that's fair criticism. Personally I can both sympathise with Neal and not. I can from a very personal perspective: it's human to feel hurt if your significant other can't spend more time with you, and to let insecurities get the better of you and slip into believing it's because they don't prioritise you and your relationship, and not because life and work are hard and make huge demands on people. On the other hand, yes, she's supporting their family and deserves to have her husband cut her some slack, and the reversed gender roles angle makes it murkier and makes me less inclined to be sympathetic. All this to say: it worked for me, but I take your point!

    Kathy: Look forward to hearing what you think!

    Linda: Enjoy :D

  6. I would also definitely have liked more about Georgie's relationship to Seth and what role that played in her relationship to Neal. I didn't feel like I had a good sense of what Georgie and Seth were together -- when Seth makes some angry remark about being Georgie's best friend, it surprised me. They don't feel like best friends. Her relationship to Heather seems much more alive.

    What's the Fangirl cameo? I missed it! Where?

  7. Jenny: the young couple who give Georgie a ride from the airport in Omaha are totally Cath and Levi :D I say this not because I'm super attentive and perceptive (I wish :P), but because I was reading this book the day I went to YALC. Rainbow Rowell mentioned there was a cameo towards the end of Landline during her panel, and I read those last few chapters on my way back home from the con. I doubt I'd have spotted it otherwise :P

  8. I am hoping to rad this on audiobook soon! I too am very interested in seeing the dynamic of a relationship in which the woman is the bread winner. And I love that the premise is that the two are deeply in love but want to look back and see if they would make the same decisions.

  9. As someone who has stayed at home to parent (and also been married 15 years), I sympathized with Neal, even if he's a dude! It can be lonely and demoralizing being with demanding tiny people all day. If I didn't have my husband to vent to at the end of the day, I would have a hard time mentally. Not that I don't have sympathy for Georgie too but I could see myself cracking if I was Neal. But he really should have answered her calls. (Yeah, I'm all over the place.)

    And yes this is a personal story. Every family is different and are not always thinking of the wider world implications when decisions are made. People just do what's best for their family, which is what I loved about it.

    PS- Seth is a jerk. I felt like he was keeping her close for the day he decides he wants to settle down.

    PPS- Hope I don't come off as too ranty. I just have lots of FEELINGS about this one.

  10. Wow. I just started reading this, and I can see that it has the potential to be powerful at this point in my 32-year marriage, when we're both working more because the kids are all grown up.

  11. Aarti: As always, I'm looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Chris: Not ranty at all! I don't think being all over the place is necessarily a bad thing, because interesting stories make us see both sides. Saying I didn't sympathise with Neal because he was a guy was an oversimplification on my part. I did understand that what he felt was human, but his story would have captured my heart more if it had included a brief acknowledgement that this is a position women have found themselves in a lot over time. But that's really a minor quibble when I consider the novel as a whole.

    Jeanne: Very much looking forward to your perspective!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.