Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

landlineThis is a great concept for a new novel by Rainbow Rowell. Unlike her last two novels, which focus on teenaged characters, Landline brings us into the middle of a mature relationship between two people who have been married for several years, have two children together, and find themselves at a crossroads in their relationship.

The improbably-named Georgie McCool is a TV comedy writer with two young children and a husband, Neal, who is very good at being a stay-at-home dad but not entirely happy with that role.  The conflict between career success and family life is rarely more believably drawn than it is at the beginning of this novel: Georgie is about to get the big break that she’s been waiting for since college, just as her marriage may be falling apart. Her troubled relationship with Neal is in sharp contrast to the easy relationship she’s always had with her writing partner, Seth. Seth and Georgie are about to achieve the dream they’ve shared for years — a show of their own — but Georgie’s personal crisis throws everything into chaos as Neal takes the kids and goes back to his mom’s house for Christmas, leaving Georgie behind.

This is where the book’s “fantasy” twist occurs — Georgie, who also retreats to her mom’s house in the middle of the crisis, discovers an old landline phone that connects her, not to the present-day Neal who won’t answer her cellphone calls or texts, but to the Neal of many years ago, the man she fell in love with. She has a direct line to the past — but what should she do with it?

It’s an intriguing story that (to me, anyway) centred around the question: what really matters, being in love with someone, or wanting the same kind of life? Georgie knows she loves Neal, and she’s pretty sure he used to love her. But do they want the same things? To me, this is one of the most important questions there is, both in life and in fiction; it’s a major theme in my own latest novel, and I was interested in how a writer as insightful as Rowell would explore it.

Georgie hopes that talking to past-Neal will help her figure this out, but what I found a little frustrating (in a very engaging and readable book, by the way!) is that as soon as she becomes obsessed with solving her marital problems, her work situation — which is on a deadline so tight that she had to miss celebrating Christmas with her family — falls by the wayside. Georgie just stops working on or caring about the show, and though I believed she wanted to get Neal back, I didn’t for one second believe that the woman we’d been introduced to at the beginning of the novel — the comedy writer who has dreamed her entire life of writing her own show — would drop that ambition like a hot potato for love. The whole conflict that drives the story is that Georgie wants Hollywood success just as much as she wants Neal, and he’s not OK with being one of her two great loves. For her to lose interest in her dream project and stop showing up to work during those crucial days seemed to undercut that basic conflict, and it made me care a little less about the ending than I thought I would when the story started.

I still enjoyed the book, and other readers might not feel the same way I did about it, but it is definitely below both Fangirl and Eleanor and Park on my  Rainbow Rowell bookshelf, because I simply didn’t feel the story was as well-executed as either of those other two books were.

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