I have read all four of Rainbow Rowell’s novels now and I have been enamored with three of them. Landline is the fourth.
Here’s what happens, basically: Georgie is married to Neal and they have two young children. He’s a stay at home dad, and she works as a TV comedy writer, currently on an awful sitcom-type show that she hates. The week of Christmas, Seth, Georgie’s writing partner, informs her that they may have a huge break in the works: a major producer wants to have a meeting with them right after Christmas, where they will showcase several written episode scripts of their own higher-concept comedy show. The catch is that Georgie will need to spend the week of Christmas preparing the scripts, but she and Neal and the kids were supposed to visit Neal’s mom in Omaha for the holiday. When Georgie breaks the news to Neal, he packs himself and the kids up and takes off to Omaha without her, leaving Georgie and her family wondering if Neal left, or if he LEFT left. A few days into Georgie’s time-out, she tries to reach Neal on the landline at his mom’s, and realizes that when she does, she’s calling Neal in the past. More specifically, she’s calling him in 1998, before they were married, on an occasion where he had done before exactly what he is doing now: abruptly taking off and spending Christmas in Omaha without her. As she talks to Past Neal, Georgie has time to think about her marriage, the trouble they’ve always had, what she can do, and if they ever should have been married at all.
The first thing about Landline is that it’s quintessential Rainbow Rowell. She has a particular gift in forming people, situations, and relationships out the most mundane of circumstances, but treating each of them with respect and finding the extraordinary in their development. Whether or not there is a deliriously happy ending for her characters, they’ve each been given the consideration they deserve by an artist who mines their stories to explain life and humanity to the rest of us.
That’s all to say that my problem with Landline is probably not any fault of Rainbow Rowell’s. I believe that the end result of how Georgie and Neal turned out — pretty messy and imperfect — was exactly her intention. I just had a hard time, personally, rooting for them as much as I did for her other couples. I didn’t have a problem with Georgie, exactly; though her acute depressive episode over the idea of losing Neal wasn’t exactly fun with a capital F to read, it was extremely real and understandable. She admits that she doesn’t always weigh Neal’s feelings when making minor work-related decisions, so until he “blows up” she can be unaware of how the lack of consideration affects him. Even so, my overall gut feeling about her is that she really is trying the best she can, not just to follow her own dreams (which is not a punishable action on its own) but also to provide for her family as the sole source of income. So, no, my problem wasn’t with Georgie… it was with Neal. He comes across, basically, as a rather sullen individual. Even before Georgie and Neal got married or even started dating, he’s portrayed as one of those guys that’s quiet and kind of sarcastic and mean as a defense mechanism. For whatever reason, that totally turns Georgie on, but it rubs other people (including, I can imagine, me, if I met him) the wrong way. He’s a great father and takes care of Georgie well enough (takes care of the house, has meals ready for Georgie when she comes home late after work) but seems ultimately really resentful of Georgie’s job and is therefore “always a little upset with Georgie”, as the cover copy reads. On some level, I get Neal’s beef. It probably sucks, a lot, for your spouse’s job to regularly command more of her time and attention than you do. But what I can’t get a sense of, is how proactive Neal ever actually is about being unsatisfied with the marriage and situation. He seems to be more of a “silent treatment” guy, which is just the singularly most irritating way of dealing with emotions and conflict ever.
So, not every person is perfect, and not every relationship is perfect. I appreciate that Rowell chose to put an imperfect couple in the spotlight and tell their story. I also have to give her every credit that she switched focus to a couple that’s been married for 20-ish years, because that’s always going to be a harder story than that of a couple just falling in love. Georgie and Neal love each other; it’s clear that despite their practical frustrations, the depth of their love has kept them together. In that way, Landline can also be a bit “too real,” because even people more inherently likeable than Neal (or Georgie) can struggle with a marriage because love isn’t always enough in a tough world. I don’t know, maybe I was just expecting more of a happy ending from a Rainbow Rowell book and I’m unfairly thinking worse of it because it chose to go the more difficult route, but I can’t help how I feel.