Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Landline’ Is Part Magic, Part Soap Opera, and All Popcorn

[23 July 2014]

By Zachary Houle

Music Editor - Canada

Rainbow Rowell has written for adults in the past (see her debut novel Attachments), but she’s probably better known as a writer of young adult fiction. Her YA novels Eleanor & Park and Fangirl were both New York Times bestsellers, and the former not only won literary award for fiction for youngsters, but it has been optioned by Dreamworks Studios, with the author slated to write the screenplay.

Landline, Rowell’s fourth novel, is a return to writing for adults. That said, the only reason this is an adult novel has to do with the fact that there’s the very occasional f-bomb, and the ages of the protagonists veer close to 40. Stylistically, this could be a novel for teenagers, otherwise. The writing is sharp and concise, and there’s very little pretense or b.s. (Other than the fact that Rowell has a habit of writing parenthetical statements in series.) (Like so.) (And you’ll either find it quirky and charming, or you will be as annoyed as heck.) (I’m not sure where I stand on the issue.)

Also, Landline is pretty much a novel squared at female readers – being a romance, this would be categorically Chick Lit. But it’s a notch above the average and standard Chick Lit fare in that there’s a level of depth and complexity to the characters who populate the book, and the dialogue is usually sparkling. Oh, and did I mention that Landline has a dose of magic realism, too? Well, there you go. Essentially, that means that the novel plays hopscotch with different genres, and that’s part of its appeal.

What makes Landline so delectable is that it’s a story of a marriage that is in crisis mode. But the marriage of the two main protagonists, Georgie and Neal, isn’t failing for the obvious reasons, such as domestic abuse or cheating. No, this is a story of a marriage that is about 15 years old, and it has simply run its course. Complacency has set in.

The couple has two young children, and along with the strain of living together so long, the marriage has simply been worn down by time, its protagonists have simply forgotten about the tang of first love. Rowell acutely captures this feeling, that when you live inside someone else’s pocket for an extended period of time, things fall apart.

But that’s not the only reason: Georgie is a television sitcom writer in Los Angeles, while Neal is a stay-at-home dad. During the week leading up to Christmas 2013, Georgie and her writing partner/friend Seth get a crack at creating their own television show without interference from anyone else – the brass ring is within reach. The problem is that Georgie and Neal have to crank out scripts during the Christmas break for a December meeting with a powerful executive. And Georgie has already made plans with her family to visit Neal’s mother in Omaha, Nebraska.

So Georgie has to make a choice between her career advancement or her marriage/family. Naturally, she chooses her career. And Neal winds up taking the kids to Omaha anyway. And Neal is clearly ticked off – he even turns off his cellphone after he leaves town, so that Georgie can’t reach him.

Or can she?

Through a series of events, Georgie discovers a yellow rotary dial telephone in the bedroom in which she grew up as a child in her mother’s house. When she plugs it in and tries calling Neal’s mother, she, instead, winds up talking to a version of Neal in 1998, a Neal who had just separated from Georgie as a girlfriend, but just before he winds up proposing marriage to her. While Georgie suspects she may be going crazy – never does she assume this might be Neal playing a trick on her – she comes to the conclusion that she has opened a magic portal to the past, and if she wants to, she can muck about with the space-time continuum.

Does she try to save her marriage? Or does she try to abort it before it even happens, to save her beloved the grief of having to put up with her? The choice is now hers.

Landline boasts one of the most acute descriptive passages about what it’s like to be in a serious, long-term, committed relationship that I’ve ever read, and this is quite profound:

(Marriage is) more like you meet someone, and you fall in love, and you hope that that person is the one – and then at some point, you have to put down your chips. You just have to make a commitment and hope that you’re right ... It’s like ... you’re tossing a ball between you, and you’re just hoping you can keep it in the air. And it has nothing to do with whether you love each other or not. If you didn’t love each other, you wouldn’t be playing this stupid game with the ball. You love each other – and you just hope you can keep the ball in play.

Rowell also captures what it is like to have kids and the effect that might have on a marriage:

Georgie was pretty sure that having kids was the worst thing you could do to a marriage. Sure, you could survive it. You could survive a giant boulder falling on your head – that didn’t mean it was good for you. Kids took a fathomless amount of time and energy ... And they took it first. They had right of first refusal on everything you had to offer.

But what’s also startling is that, while reading this book, I gained a greater understanding of what it must be like to feel like being a woman. I’m not really the target audience for this due to my gender, despite the magic realism elements, but there are sections where Georgie goes shopping for bras, and describes what it’s like to have a C-section, and what it is like to be driven by pure emotion. I felt I gained an insight as to what it is like to be a member of the opposite sex, which certainly opened my eyes.

And yet, the book does fall flat in places. There are some plot threads left dangling at the conclusion. Plus, Rowell certainly doesn’t know how to write comedy – Georgie works on a show called “Jeff’d Up”, which is both a poor play on words and a way too overt nod to a slang term in use in the Urban Dictionary. Basically, the way the show is described, it sounds like the kind of thing that wouldn’t even make it to the pilot stage. It’s pure trash.

As well, nobody is going to recognize Landline as serious literature for it plays basically like a soap opera. However, credit must be given to Rowell for adding diversity to her characters – there’s an African American and a gay character, among others – and reading the novel is a little like peeling back the onion of a relationship.

You start out thinking that this is simply a career versus family tome, but little by little, the past courtship, the marriage ceremony and honeymoon, and first years of being together in a union all begin to eventually unspool, and you begin to have a greater appreciation for the main characters’ angst. Plus, this is a book that is full of pop cultural goodness: from references to old sitcoms to Back to the Future.

Essentially, Landline is pure popcorn. And it’s oh so good on that level. Rowell has essentially written a crackling great read about human relations, and, who knows? It may cross over to the New Adult audience, if not, with a little bit of polishing, make for a TV dramedy somewhere in the future. It’s not perfect, but, then again, just like its subject matter, what relationship is? And that’s where Landline ropes you in.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/183565-landline-by-rainbow-rowell/