Georgie’s marriage is in trouble. She and her husband, Neal, end up in different cities for Christmas – she makes a last-minute decision to stay in L.A. to work on an important new project for her work, while Neal takes their two daughters to Omaha for Christmas as originally planned. This is the first time in 15 years the two have been apart for any length of time, and Georgie and Neal left each other on very tense terms. Georgie, a television writer, leads a hectic life, so often forgets to see to the small details in her life – like buying a new battery for her phone that doesn’t die every few minutes. After trying various cell phone calls and not being able to reach Neal, Georgie calls him from the landline at her mother’s house… and soon realizes she’s called Neal from 1998. This Neal is in Omaha as well, it is Christmas break and he had broken up with Georgie. Georgie realizes that with this magic phone, she may have a chance to fix her past and her future in one fell swoop.
It’s hard for me when reading a new (or new to me, anyway) book from a great author to not compare it to her other works, especially when it has some big shoes to fill after Fangirl, Eleanor & Park, and Carry On. I’ll also admit – the synopsis didn’t grab my attention right away. Had I not already read several of Rowell’s books, I probably would have passed on this. I feel like I need to qualify all of this because Landline isn’t a bad book, and Rowell delivers strong characters and good writing as usual. However, for me, I think it falls into the “perfectly fine” category.
I think one of the biggest issues I had with the book was that I found it hard to connect with Georgie and Neal’s love story. He’s kind of prickly and reserved, while she’s more spontaneous and fun. Those kinds of differences are perfectly fine if the connection is believable but for as much as Georgie tells us she needs Neal, and she couldn’t survive without him, I never really feel like that’s authentic. This is especially evident when you add in Georgie’s best friend since college (and pre-Neal), Seth. We learn that Seth and Neal really aren’t each others biggest fans, but Georgie has never been romantically involved with Seth and has no interest in it. Frankly, that would have made the more interesting story. I think Rowell stacks the deck against Neal in two ways: he’s not present for a good deal of the main events, whereas Seth always is, and when he is present, it’s the 1998 version of him. It’s hard to feel invested in the urgency of that story when we’re looking at it from the book’s present timeline of 2013. Add to that the fact that Georgie’s interactions with Seth feel more genuine and loving than her interactions with Neal and, well, it’s just tough to handle at some points. All the more frustrating is that there are several instances in the book in which you realize that if the characters just said what was on their minds, some progress would be made. It was all very frustrating.
I don’t mean to dwell on the negative aspects here, because there is a lot of good to be had in this book. Georgie herself is funny, and her interactions with her mother, stepfather, and sister are realistic, touching, and sometimes downright hysterical. Her descriptions of talking on a landline phone are both nostalgic and funny (especially when her much younger sister doesn’t realize how hanging up the phone after you’ve picked it up in another room works). When Georgie is playing with the cord and wrapping it around her fingers until her fingertips go white it made me giggle and go “yeeees!” because any of us who had one of those remembers exactly what that is like. And yes, I am old enough that I used corded telephones for the first half of my life. The pinnacle of coolness in the 90s was my clear phone with the neon lights that flashed when it rang. I have no regrets.
Also, and most importantly to me, if I’m being honest – Rowell gives us an update on Cath and Levi from Fangirl. That one chapter involving those two excited me more than anything in the rest of the book. I also listened to this as an audiobook, which was narrated by the excellent Rebecca Lowman (who also does Fangirl) and I think that actually heightened my enjoyment of the book. All in all, this book was pretty good. I probably won’t read it again, but even when Rowell isn’t at the top of her game, her game is still better than 90% of what’s out there.