Today I’m joined by my long-time since-childhood friend Katie, who doesn’t have a blog but really should, as she always has lots to say about books (as evidenced here) and is a very talented crafter.
★★★★ (4 stars) from both of us
Synopsis from Goodreads: Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems besides the point now. Maybe that was always besides the point. Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her. When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything. That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts… Is that what she’s supposed to do? Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?
Why did I read this book?
K: I’ve read two previous books by Rainbow Rowell (“Attachments” and “Fangirl”) and enjoyed both of them, so I was keen to read more of her work (and still am!).
H: I read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl earlier this year and whilst I didn’t love it as much as most of my friends seem to (unlike in the case of Landline where I seem to have enjoyed it more than everyone else I know) it did make me interested to read more of her work.
Favourite thing about the book:
K: I like stories that have a strong element of emotional introspection combined with the action, and frequently find that books have too much action and too little thinking for my taste. However in this respect “Landline” suited me perfectly and I got very emotionally involved in the story. I thought that the portrayal of a couple fourteen years and two children into their relationship was very convincing, and especially liked that at no time did Rainbow Rowell suggest that maintaining such a relationship was either easy or supposed to be easy. I found some passages of the book quite painful and I did cry several times, primarily at the events of the book (especially at Georgie’s sense of a closeness slipping away and being unable to stop it), but also because of memories they recalled. A lot of the emotional involvement was triggered by the way the book was structured- each chapter is given a date in 2013, but under these headings the reader is taken back to the very beginning of their relationship (and before) and all the intervening stages, particularly a period around Christmas 1998. I think that this structuring was very successful.
H: I say this a lot, but: how easy and enjoyable to read it was. I read it on a day when both my toddler and I had bad colds and it was an ideal distraction for me whilst we huddled on the sofa under a blanket (he preferred to watch endless Peppa Pig, so Landline was a good distraction from that as well as from the cold).
K: + I found it really gripping and read it in under a day.
+ I found all the characters believable.
+ The writing style was engaging and did not annoy me at any point- though some typos in the kindle edition!
+ I liked the shadowing and repeats throughout the story, for instance Georgie being so desperate for a call from a high school boyfriend that she even drags the cord phone into the bathroom with her, and then doing something very similar in 2013 when she takes her iphone plugged into her laptop into the toilets because she’s so anxious to hear from Neal. Other examples of echoes and shadowing include both Georgie and Neal’s behaviour over the 1998 and 2013 separations.
+ I really liked that Georgie wasn’t obsessed with her size/ weight especially post babies and especially as someone working in an industry where such things are given an extremely inappropriate degree of importance. I also liked that it didn’t seem to bother anyone around her either. I thought that it was especially telling that Seth, who was characterised as being quite shallow in regard to women’s appearance, wasn’t bothered (or even particularly concerned by what she wore) and was entirely motivated in his feelings towards her by who she was rather than what she looked like. I found this treatment of women’s bodies very refreshing and think the book as a whole is quite body positive.
+ I really appreciated the attempt to treat the sexes with equality. It was great that Neal was a happy stay at home father and I liked that nobody commented that it was in any way unusual or odd that Georgie had a more powerful and lucrative career (even when Neal was in paid employment), or that he spent more time directly caring for their children.
+ However, I’m also going to talk about a slight possible negative here as it is linked. It did concern me that the set up for this book was that Georgie spent too much time away from her family. She was working in an industry involving awkward hours, and as the main and later the sole breadwinner in her marriage, I wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do about it, and felt that some of Neal’s criticism/ the sense that a reader was supposed to be critical was unfair. However, on the positive side I did not feel that this was handled in a sexist manner, for instance I did not get the impression that if the main breadwinner were male it would be fine for him to be extremely career driven and ignore his family. I more felt that Rainbow Rowell was suggesting that this behaviour isn’t great in anyone, and possibly the point of the book is that alternatives can be hard to find.
+ The Christmas setting definitely made me think of A Christmas Carol/ Ebeneezer Scrooge derived stories (and it was name-checked at the end), which mostly feature a male character who does not spend enough time with his family. I think that Rainbow Rowell deliberately flipped this to involve a female protagonist, but while on the one hand this is an act against sexism (it is wrong to assume that it is a male thing to abandon family for work, or only negative in females), I am not sure if there are enough career women in male dominated industries for some treatments of this theme not to look like attacks against career women in general, rather than just examinations of one individual woman’s behaviour. While I feel that Rainbow Rowell did avoid this, it does concern me slightly as a trope. This is a tricky issue, and while the sexes should face equality in criticism as well as in access to advantages, it can feel that as women still have so very far to go, additional knock-backs (even if unintentional and in the interests of equality) can be unhelpful. If we existed in a state of perfect equality such a concern would not arise, and any form of letting women off more lightly than men would certainly be sexism and should certainly be condemned, but I am just not sure we are there yet. While any individual who does not conform to sexual stereotypes (e.g. a career woman) should not be treated as a sacred being not to be questioned, it would be too easy for an unthinking person to take elements of this story and similar ones, and use them to reinforce sexual stereotypes, e.g. that women should not care about career as much as a man. In an ideal world neither men nor women would have to sacrifice family in order to achieve either career success or the ability to support that family, but with the world as it is all we can do is not criticise on the basis of gender those individuals who do so.
+ However, ultimately I think it would be wrong to criticise Rainbow Rowell for writing as if a greater level of equality has been reached than generally seems to have been. It is to her credit that she should seek to normalise equality, and therefore while I mention it as a concern, I think that overall the book deals with equality issues in a positive manner.
H: + I liked the magical realism/sci fi/fantasy/speculative fiction (choose your favoured term) plot device of the phone that allowed Georgie to talk to her husband over a decade previously. It felt believable and the time travel paradox was solved (kind of) by Georgie deducing that the conversation from the future had caused Neal’s actions at the time.
+ Landline largely consists of people talking to each other and not much else, but you know what? I like that.
+ Georgie’s family were fun to read about, and I liked the subplots involving her mother’s pregnant pug and her sister’s pizza-delivery-person crush.
Least favourite thing about the book:
K: Contains Spoilers (sorry if you do not like spoilers but I cannot answer this question without them!)
Lack of resolution at the end, which led to my other problem- lack of clarity about what point, if any, this book is trying to make. For me the book ended too abruptly as I had become involved with aspects of these characters lives that were never concluded. I could understand that both Georgie and Neal were unhappy and that it was not particularly anyone’s fault, but I wanted to know where there was to go from there. The only level of conclusion was that Georgie promised to “try harder” (based on a promise made to 1998 Neal) and Neal promised to do likewise (though one questions how he felt she did post 1998, and whether he thought it would be more likely to happen this time). I felt invested enough in their relationship to want more specifics, and also thought that they both had been trying already, so wanted more specifics to help me feel more hopeful about the future I desperately wanted them to have together. I don’t know much about being a US TV comedy writer, but I get the impression that you are either succeeding and earning a lot, but with a massive time commitment, or you are not doing anything and are not earning enough to support a family. Perhaps there is more middle ground? I don’t know, but I certainly am not clear how Georgie can stay in this profession and give more time and support to her family. Perhaps she is supposed to get a new phone (and charge it regularly!) and call them all a lot from work? Perhaps she is supposed to do fewer last minute jobs?- but surely the nature of the position is last minute jobs? I did not get the impression that Georgie was supposed to abandon her dream career and find something where she could work more regular hours, so am left wondering what is supposed to happen.
I was also left wondering about the “Passing Time” scripts and whether they did get to make the pilot. A closed door happy ending where they make the show, it’s a massive success and they don’t sell out at all, while at the same time Georgie gets to spend more time with Neal and the girls would be massively over simplistic and out of character with the rest of the book, as it was not about easy answers or complete solutions, but I really did want some sense that when they got back home from Omaha there was going to be some concrete improvement, and that Georgie’s romantic gesture was not going to be a brief and soon forgotten aberration in a continuing downward spiral.
In a book that was so concerned with people’s emotions I really would have liked more reported conversation between Neal and Georgie at the end- especially an explanation as to why Neal didn’t return any calls. Neal seemed very keen that they not discuss anything too deeply, and that does not give me much hope for a relationship in which a lack of communication seemed to me the chief problem. However, even with this reservation I did like the book, and feel that perhaps Rainbow Rowell’s desire to suggest that there are no easy answers meant that she could not make the ending more concrete. Also, the lack of complete closure has left me thinking about the characters beyond the book’s end, and perhaps this was another thing Rainbow Rowell was intending.
H: It was inconceivable to me that Georgie didn’t think about how changing the past could undo her children’s existence as soon as she realised she was talking to past-Neal, and that she even considered trying to change the past for her/Neal’s sake when that would obliterate their lives.
K: – I found 2013 Neal’s behaviour quite hard to understand and couldn’t tell whether this was Rainbow Rowell’s intention. Georgie left repeated messages for him both on his phone and with his mother and their daughters and he didn’t call back. It later emerges that his phone has “died”, but it would seem that he has had opportunity to call before this, unless he believed that his phone had died earlier than it actually did.
– Also, it seems somewhat irresponsible to leave himself uncontactable when he has custody of the children and (BIG SPOILER) we later learn that he is even more uncontactable because his mother no longer even has a landline (which seems really odd to me in an area at risk of emergency conditions from heavy snowfall, but maybe that’s what they do?).
– I can understand that Neal was irritated with Georgie for consistently putting her work ahead of their relationship and their family life, but he had taken their two small daughters away for Christmas, and to me it seemed strange that he wasn’t either personally ensuring that the girls had contact with their mother (they had some limited but not very meaningful contact when he wasn’t there), or discussing how the children were doing with his wife. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations on this?
– Everything else I learned bout Neal made me like him, and to me this non-contact seemed out of character in its irresponsibility. Similarly I found it strange that Neal would go out in heavy snow without his phone, leaving two small daughters alone with his mother. Possibly this is supposed to be consistent with his relaxed attitude about leaving doors unlocked- he genuinely thinks that nothing bad is going to happen- but this was not made clear. Even if his own phone was not at times available to him it seemed odd that he never borrowed one as Georgie frequently did. Possibly Rainbow Rowell was trying to suggest the depths of his irritation by this behaviour, but I would have liked more clarity on this, as there was no resolution of this issue or much reference to it when they did meet again.
– Possibly it would have been difficult to combine the conceit of only talking to Neal in the past with reasonable 2013 contact, but I would have preferred a different method- for instance if Neal only managed to leave messages, or if those with him passed on messages from him when he was out and Georgie rang. Ultimately for me it just seems out of character to go so totally silent. While this may have been supposed to match Georgie’s total silence in 1998, I felt that the situations were too different (primarily in the existence of two small children) to make comparable behaviour seem natural.
– It was slightly improbable (even given the improbability of having a “magic” phone in the first place!) that Neal had been having extensive conversations with Georgie in 1998 and neither the fact of them nor the information exchanged ever came up between them in the subsequent fifteen years. However, this did add another example in support of what we learned about them finding it difficult to communicate in some areas.
– A slight personal negative is that I think a lot of the references were lost on me- US TV, films, songs etc. I didn’t feel this hindered my enjoyment of the book particularly, and I could have looked them up! However, if this is something likely to bother you, be warned, there is a fair bit of it!
H: – In my review of Fangirl I picked up on Rainbow Rowell’s occasional use of discriminatory language, and whilst Landline wasn’t quite so bad in that regard she does again use the phrase “spazzing out”. Yay for ableism (not). It is rather incongruous that she uses terms like this when elsewhere in her novels she tries to be inclusive e.g. the LGBT issues addressed through a few characters in Landline and the mental health issues faced by Cath and Wren’s dad in Fangirl.
– The lead character is called Georgie McCool. Seriously?
– The love triangle between Neal, Georgie and another person seemed rather manufactured and to come out of nowhere towards the end of the novel rather than being developed along the way – there weren’t enough hints early on that this person felt more than friendship towards the other.
K: The book is almost exclusively about Georgie and her feelings, so there is far less detail about other characters, making it difficult to choose a favourite among them. I did like Georgie and I liked everyone else as far as we knew them.
H: Heather. I’d also like to note that whilst I couldn’t relate to Georgie very much (I am so not career-minded! No criticism of anyone that is but work has never been the focus of my life. Maybe because I’ve never had a cool job like writing for a living?) I did like her for the most part.
K: I didn’t really have a least favourite. For a while I didn’t like Seth much, entirely because of his tendency to view all women to some extent as sex objects, and the way he dehumanised women by liking to have a “parade” of them going through his bed and life. However, ultimately it was suggested that he wasn’t happy with these aspects of himself, and as more details of past and present were revealed he emerged as a more supportive and less shallow person than he had initially appeared.
H: There wasn’t anyone I disliked, and although at times Neal annoyed me he also reminded me a bit of my partner (who can seem aloof to those who don’t know him well) so overall I had to like him.
I recommend this book to:
K: ~ The bits about US TV, the script writing sessions, and two writers feeling that their show in production fell far short of their ideals, reminded me strongly of “Episodes”, so “Episodes” fans might like this book.
~ Anyone wanting to match books to seasons, as this book has a strong Christmas setting.
~ Anyone interested in emotional introspection in books, especially where there is more mental than physical action!
H: People who want an easy, unchallenging read. This is, essentially chick-lit, which is a genre I usually avoid (because when I do venture into it I end up ranting on for hours about how awful it is), but written with warmth, intelligence and respect for its characters who are way more than stereotypes.