Book Review: Landline, Rainbow Rowell

I absolutely adore Rainbow Rowell, both as a human being and as an author — Eleanor & Park and Fangirl are two absolutely delightful young adult books that also read well for those of us who don’t really qualify for young adult status any more. But before LandlineI hadn’t read any of her adult fiction. I was confident that the style I was so familiar with would translate well to the world of contemporary adult fiction, and I was pleased to see that I was totally right: Landline is a fun, glorious, wonderful book that probes love, relationships, and what it’s like to be a woman in an often difficult industry, and world.

Georgie McCool’s marriage is a mess. Despite loving her husband and two kids, she’s struggling to keep up as she works as a writer on a comedy show she hates, while trying to develop her own scripts for the pitch meeting that could change her life. With her trusty college friend by her side, she’s so focused on her work that she doesn’t realize how unhappy Neal is, until he takes the kids back to his mom’s house for Christmas without her, and she begins to fear that she might never see them again.

Given that he’s not answering his phone or responding to messages, it’s probably no surprise that she’s worried, so she tries the final option: Dialing the landline, that trusty old house phone, in the hopes that he can’t evade her forever. But when she picks up the phone, she unwittingly opens a portal to the past, and finds herself talking to a young, college-age Neal, taking a winter vacation after a fight with the Georgie of the past — and preparing to ask her to marry him.

She’s thrown into a tumult as she figures out what’s going on and starts to question whether her marriage would have been better off if it had never existed at all, and then she begins to wonder if this entire event already happened, and she’s fated to be with Neal after all. What should she be doing, or saying, to the man she loves most in the world? Meanwhile, she’s camped out at her mother’s house, retreating into a depressed shell over the fact that her husband might be leaving her, and completely dropping the ball on the show she’s supposed to be preparing to pitch in a matter of days.

Landline is sharp, contemporary, and serious, though there are light moments in the text. Georgie is a funny woman, and it comes through in the way she interacts with the world, even as she’s trying to figure out who she is, who she wants to be, and what she wants to prioritise in life. The book speaks to the trouble many women have as they try to balance their lives, their work, their dreams, their goals, and their families, knowing that sometimes work comes before family, and sometimes, you have to be careful about whether you want to let that happen — and how far you want it to go.

I find it totally fascinating that Rowell has explored our recent past in both Eleanor & Park and Landline. Her decision to consciously skip backwards a few decades, rather than going deeper into history, isn’t just a nostalgia for our youth and the decades we grew up in. It’s also a commentary on how rapidly society is shifting and changing, and how the ways we relate to each other have changed. There was a time when we called each other on landlines and had to camp by the phone and were tethered to the phone jack, and it wasn’t that long ago.

It’s easy to forget how much has shifted even in the last decade, let alone the last 30 years. Landline explores that in a way that’s utterly fascinating as Georgie tries to reconnect with Neal and finds herself doing so through the medium of technology that’s rapidly becoming obsolete. Rowell isn’t romanticising this era, or suggesting that these modern kids with their cell phones are doing some wrong, or experience stilted, nonfunctional communication, but the fact that she’s pondering it, and talking about it, makes her a standout.

The digital era has changed the way people relate, and it will continue to. It’s fascinating, and important, to cast a look back into the past to see the way relationships and communication are shifting, to help us understand our past as well as our future. Thinking about Landline also makes me consider generational gaps, and the way the relationships I’ve built with the people my age are fundamentally different, communication-wise, than those I have with older people — even those who are highly active with and rely on technology as much as, if not more so, than I do. They grew up in a different era, and they have a very different relationship with technology.

Once, if I wanted to talk to a friend who wasn’t with me, I had to pick up a phone and dial a number and hope my friend was at a specific place to pick up the ringing phone on the other end. Now, I’m just as likely to text, or pop into chat, or send an email — and it doesn’t matter where either of us are, or will be. That’s a huge revolution in the way we interact with each other, and it’s something that’s changing us all in ways we can’t even begin to fathom. In Landline, Georgie got a second chance to do it old school style, and it’s a fascinating hypothetical experiment.

Note: This review is based on a copy of the book provided by St. Martin’s Press. I have not received any other compensation or consideration for reviewing it. For those into audio forms of their reading, may I present…the Landline audiobook!