Books | Arts

Balancing Signal And Noise In 'Landline'

NPR | July 8, 2014 8:57 a.m.

Contributed By:

Amal El-Mohtar

I’m deeply conflicted about how to review this book. On the one hand, I literally laughed and cried from one page to the next and devoured the whole in a brief sitting.

On the other hand, I’ve also read Rainbow Rowell’s other books, and this one pales in comparison.

So I could review it straightforwardly and say that it’s funny, clever, charming, endearing, and all that would be true — but I could also review it and say that in some ways it’s the least of the books of hers I’ve read so far, and that would also be true.

Which I suppose is appropriate, given that this is largely a book about conflicting and equivalent truths.

Georgie McCool is a successful L.A. comedy writer struggling to balance her work and family life. Her husband Neal, devoted to raising their daughters full-time, feels neglected in favour of Jeff’d Up, the hit sitcom that pays the bills but doesn’t fulfil Georgie artistically; meanwhile her writing partner, Seth, resents Neal for taking Georgie away from her work. In the week before Christmas, Georgie and Seth get the chance to write the show they’ve always dreamed of — provided they turn in scripts during the ten days Georgie’s planning to be on holiday with her family. The result is that Neal and the girls go to his family’s home in Omaha without her.

Georgie’s stricken by this, more so when Neal seems to be avoiding her calls — until she calls his family’s house from the yellow rotary phone in her childhood bedroom. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the Neal she’s reached through the yellow landline is speaking to her from 1998, early in their relationship, when he’d broken up with her the week before Christmas and driven from L.A. to Omaha without stopping. Pieced together through cross-temporal conversations, recollections and reflections, Georgie and Neal’s relationship history takes shape — and Georgie must decide what to do with it in the present.

All of Rowell’s books thus far have paid some homage to geeky interests — superhero comics in Eleanor & Park, Harry Potter (ish) fanfic communities in Fangirl, Dungeons & Dragons in Attachments — but this is the first to feature an outright science fiction element in the time-blurring phone. It’s a deliciously clever device: using the increasingly-obsolete landline as an anchor, foothold, or portal into the past is a great idea, especially when the past in question isn’t yet distant enough to be alien. As a metaphor for returning to a root-deep connection in the face of signal noise and distortion it’s excellent — but ultimately, it works better as meta commentary than effective storytelling tool.

I loved this book for exploring the intricacies of a difficult marriage that isn’t abusive — a marriage that has friction and tension that stems from good people trying their best, rubbing their rough edges smooth against each other. I loved it for not questioning the fact that a woman can be a good mother and have a successful career, that a man can be a good father by working in the home, and that their problems stem not from gender roles but personality conflicts. I loved the frequent sharp insights and succinct turns of phrase that pinned a feeling in place, and that are so characteristic of Rowell’s writing.

But I also found it uneven in its pacing and structure, and insufficient in its characterization. One of Rowell’s strengths is in making every minor character come alive, step whole and entire on to the page even if only for the length of a scene or two, with very few exceptions. In Landline, though, where the central conflict seems determined to be about Seth and Neal pulling Georgie in opposite directions, Seth is two-dimensional: He’s either a cipher or an unmitigated jerk, and the best-friendship described in the book doesn’t ring true.

Without a solid relationship to offer any kind of serious challenge or check to Georgie’s marriage, Landline feels lop-sided. I thought, too, that it could have been better curated; the mix of Georgie’s memories, time-crossing conversations, and present-day commentary on the past made the book feel padded with repetition almost as often as it made it luminous and satisfying.

But for the most part, I was deeply affected. I did laugh; I did cry; I did find myself thinking about the lives we dream and the lives we make, the lives we choose and the lives from which we turn away. I finished Landline wanting to talk about it, and trying very hard to remember the numbers I used to dial without a second thought, the 7-digit sequences that were as much a part of my consciousness as the names of the friends and family to which they were attached.


Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

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