Georgie McCool knows that things are not great in her marriage to stay-at-home dad Neal. The two have a pair of amazing daughters, and Neal is an incredible father, but Georgie’s work–writing for a hit television sitcom, and preparing to launch the show she’s been working on for decades with her writing partner, Seth–causes stress between her and Neal. Two days before they’re supposed to leave for a Christmas visit to Omaha to be with Neal’s family, Georgie backs out to work on the new show. Neal takes the girls and goes anyway, leaving Georgie alone and wondering if her marriage is over.
But when Georgie calls Neal from the yellow celandine phone in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house, she realizes that she’s not talking to the Neal of the present. She’s talking to the Neal of the past. So what does it mean? Is she crazy? Is she supposed to fix something? And if she is, what exactly is it?
Rainbow Rowell’s second adult novel has all the trappings of what readers expect from Rowell at this ponit: it’s funny, clever, and often very charming. No one writes a romantic comedy like Rowell, and this novel has many of the author’s trademark witticisms. But it’s also the weakest of her four novels thus far. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t enjoyable or that readers won’t devour it, because they will. But it’s a bit of a letdown for those who have absolutely fallen in love with Rowell’s other books.
But first, the good: Rowell’s examination of a complex, difficult marriage is smart, nuanced, and authentic. What’s important to note here is that Georgie and Neal love each other but recognize that that might not be enough and that it certainly doesn’t fix their problems. These are two good people who are trying to work it out but are dealing with personality conflicts and fundamentally different priorities. The novel is sympathetic to its central couple, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that they are flawed human beings with different motivations and needs.
There’s also something very smart about Rowell’s touch of magical realism in the novel. Georgie discovering that she can connect with the Neal of her past via a landline–a communication device that is very nearly obsolete–makes for a compelling metaphor. This anchor to the past, in some ways very literally, provides Georgie a way to feel both nostalgic and also allows her to do some deep reflection. But the problem is, the phone works better as a metaphor than as an actual plot point, because readers are treated to a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of repetition of conversations as Georgie and Neal talk.
Which brings this reviewer to the novel’s biggest problems: uneven pacing and disappointing characterization. What has worked so well in Rowell’s previous novels is her incredible characterization. Even small, tertiary characters leap off her pages and are fully realized, well-rounded individuals. Here, that’s not the case. While Georgie is fairly well drawn (if not more than a little exasperating), Neal isn’t given enough page time to become a fully sympathetic character, and Georgie’s writing partner, Seth, is given even less. This is particularly troubling because he’s supposed to serve as a major part of the tension in Georgie and Neal’s marriage. But Seth never becomes more than a one-dimensional needy lech of a dude-bro.
As mentioned before, the novel’s pacing feels off at times, too. Because Rowell relies so heavily on phone conversations between present-Georgie and past-Neal, the novel feels weirdly padded with conversations that become a slog to get through. More page time could have been given to characterization or action, and the novel would have picked up its pace considerably.
Even so, it’s still a Rainbow Rowell book. Readers will be able to consume this novel in one sitting, and it’s still got a lot of humor and heart. Perhaps it’s a case of raised expectations that lead to a slight letdown with this one. Some teen crossover appeal, but this one is pretty firmly in the adult camp.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press: 2014. Purchased copy.