Georgie McCool is at the peak of her TV writing career with the news of the one show she and her best friend, Seth, had been dreaming about since they first started working together right out of college. It’s everything she’s ever wanted. The only problem is, she’d have to skip the family Christmas vacation to Omaha that’s been planned weeks in advanced. Neal, being the kind and loving husband that he is, doesn’t push her, but is visibly upset that Georgie considers staying behind in California, spending Christmas away from him and their girls. But what can she do? It really is the big break she’s been waiting for, the chance of a lifetime. But is it worth it?
While separated from her husband and children, Georgie contemplates her marriage and how she and Neal went from deeply in love to a shockingly tense relationship. Through the help of a “magical fucking phone”—as Georgie calls it—she’s able to communicate with Neal from the past before they were even engaged. I was fascinated by this premise and was anxious to get my hands on a phone like that. Alas, Target does not sell it.
On the surface, Landline would appear to be a romance novel with science fictional elements added thanks to the magical phone, but it’s really way more than that, but also none of that at the same time. It takes a deeper look at the age old saying: Sometimes love just isn’t enough. In essence, that’s what Georgie relied on to keep her marriage together for so long until she realized it was falling apart. Can love really endure all things?
“We’re not broken up.”
“I know, but we’re still broken.”
Much of the novel centers around a delicate balance of past and present narration, from Georgie. We learn how they met, we see them fall in love, we root for them before we understand why their marriage lost its spark. This sort of narration can be tricky and convoluted if it feels choppy. However, Rowell pulls this off very well and weaves it around the magical phone conversations with Past Neal. It’s entirely relevant and without the past narration, we’d never really get a sense of this Past Neal because he is very much a separate character from Present Neal. In fact, in the end, we get better picture of Past Neal than Present.
Past Georgie is just fascinating and relatable. At the time she marries Neal, she’s in her early 20s and feels like everything will work out because she has this deep love for her husband and he for her. She would have never imagined them ever falling to pieces because they were perfect for each other. But that’s really where Rowell succeeds with her character arc. When you’re young and you think you have forever, you don’t think about all the possible ways things will break.
“You don’t know when you are twenty-three. 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.”
Rowell has a way of speaking to your soul and it singing back without you knowing it at first. Even though I personally haven’t been a huge fan of her writing in the past, Landline did grab me and jerk a few tears from my eyes. When Georgie started to really rethink her choice of staying behind, I connected with her more. I understood her conflicted feelings of wanting love to be the cure-all for her marital issues. I felt for her deep affection of Neal despite her not understanding how to fix the problem. She struggles with the knowledge of knowing much of the problem is her, that she’s been selfish and not considerate enough to Neal over the years. It’s very self-depreciating for Georgie and she spends most of her conversations with Past Neal trying to convince him to never propose to her in the first place.
I really appreciate how Rowell just seems to get relationships and how she manages to create such interesting dynamics. Georgie and her best friend, Seth, with their witty banter and easy conversation, was entertaining and held all the signature Rainbow Rowell humor fans have grown to love and expect from her novels (especially the 80s references because it wouldn’t be a Rainbow Rowell novel without them!). Georgie and her two girls had the most adorable scenes, with her youngest insisting on Georgie saying goodbye by meowing. It was little quirky things like this that brought a smile to my face and made the side characters feel just as real and developed as the main ones.
If there is one thing I could complain about with Landline, is the “magical fucking phone.” I really wanted more from it. I expected Rowell to explore the reasons behind the time traveling, but there wasn’t any. By the end of the novel, the focus remained on Georgie and Neal’s relationship and it left behind more questions than answers. While the phone does play a large part in the book, it’s always just a passing thought for Georgie. She does think about the mechanics behind it a few times, but it’s brief and didn’t satisfy my curiosity. How did it work? What were the consequences of the space time continuum for using this phone? Did Neal really know about the phone? Does Georgie’s family home hold any other super powered 80s magical devices? Did the Doctor create the magical phone?! Am I thinking about this too hard?!
Overall, Landline is a solid novel about what happens to a relationship when you are well past the infatuation, past the first years of marriage and into a barren territory you never thought you’d be in. How do you find your way back to the oasis and why can’t love save you? If you were hoping this was Rowell mixing her quirky contemporary with a bit of science fiction, you may be underwhelmed on that notion. However, I wouldn’t discount it because of that. It’s not what I was expecting, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t disappointed with what I found in its place.
Landline is available now from St Martin’s Press.