St. Martin’s Press / July 8, 2014 / $24.99 print / $11.99 digital
Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply—but that almost seems beside the point now.
Maybe that was always beside the point.
Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her—Neal is always a little upset with Georgie—but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go without her.
When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.
That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts.
Is that what she’s supposed to do?
Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?
Most of romance novels I’ve been reading lately deal with—let us say—outsized problems. Dark secrets, family feuds, and supernatural complications abound as larger-than-life heroes and heroines battle tortured pasts, evil siblings, or (occasionally) Satan’s minions en route to their HEA. These are usually emotionally compelling and highly entertaining books, but I sometimes have a hard time placing myself precisely in the heroine’s shoes, if you know what I mean.
Landline, Rainbow Rowell’s follow-up to the widely-praised Eleanor and Park and Fangirl, is a little different. The heroine, Georgie McCool, is faced with an all-too-common challenge: work-life balance. As a wife, mother, and writer for a successful sitcom, Georgie struggles to do right by her husband, her daughters, and her network—and as often as not falls short in each of these arenas. I, and many women, can definitely relate.
As our story begins, it’s only a few days before Christmas when Georgie and her best friend and co-writer, Seth, learn that their network is interested in a new show that they’ve pitched. Georgie, who is a little bit bored with her current gig on a show called Jeff’d Up (her most prominent contribution to the show is the development of an obnoxious 12-year-old character named Trev whose catchphrase, “This suuuuuuuucks,” appears on t-shirts all over town), is ecstatic; her show, sort of an updated My So-Called Life, is particularly close to her heart, and writing it is her dream job.
There’s just one problem: The potential producers want fully-written episodes, and they want them two days after Christmas. And Georgie and her family, including husband Neal and two adorable daughters, already have plans to visit Neal’s family in Omaha.
No big deal, right? They’ll just cancel Omaha. This is Georgie’s dream, after all. Except Neal has suddenly had enough of coming in second to Georgie’s career, and he packs up the kids and whisks them off to his parents’ house in Nebraska, leaving Georgie behind.
Stunned and saddened, Georgie retreats to her mother’s house to spend the holidays with her own family. She tries to reach Neal, but he seems to be ignoring her increasingly desperate calls to his cell phone. Finally, she tries his family’s old landline. She does, in fact, reach him—but quickly realizes that through some weird quirk of fate, she’s speaking not with present-day Neal but the 22-year-old Neal of 15 years ago, when their relationship was on the brink of implosion and only a grand gesture on his part kept them together.
As she talks with Young Neal—who has no idea he’s communicating with the future—over the next few days, she thinks back over their early courtship and realizes that her life is at a crossroads. What does she really want: the Dream, or Neal?
Rowell deftly evokes the tension that many people, and especially, I think, many women, experience between a fulfilling career and a rewarding family life. Sooner or later, many if not most people are forced to choose, in big ways or small, between family and career —although most of us don’t have access to a time-bending phone line to facilitate our decision-making process. And Rowell competently shows us the stakes involved. Georgie genuinely wants to have it all. We want Georgie to have it all. But at the end of the day…she can’t. Ultimately, she does make a choice, one that is bound to satisfy some readers while infuriating others. That’s realistic, too (although I would have liked to have seen her try harder to find a middle path, but whatever).
If I have one criticism of the novel, it’s that we don’t get much of Neal’s perspective until the very end, and until then, in my reading, he comes across as somewhat sullen, passive-aggressive, and immature. (I can’t tell you how many times I hissed “Just USE YOUR WORDS already, you giant douchebag” at the printed page.) On the other hand, we don’t have to love him; we just need to believe that Georgie loves him, and Rowell makes sure that we do, in no small part thanks to passages like this one:
Georgie thought they’d kiss then. She tried to find his mouth.
But Neal kept rubbing his cheek into hers, and it felt so nice – all the soft and hard parts of their faces catching on each other. Cheekbone on brow. Jawbone on chin. Neil’s skin was flushed and warm. His hands were holding firm. He smelled like bar soap and beer and fabric paint. God….
This was better than kissing.
In Landline, Rowell gives us a compelling modern romance shot through with magical realism—and in fact, even without the phone calls to the past, the story is one that will resonate with many readers. And even if you have issues with the ultimate destination, the vivid characters and lively side plots – particularly Georgie’s sister’s romantic adventures with a friendly member of the local pizza delivery crew—will ensure that you will appreciate the journey.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of Landline by Rainbow Rowell, available July 8, 2014:
Kate Nagy blogs at kateholdscourt.wordpress.com.