Rainbow Rowell, Landline

I did not read much last month (I will post my regular list in the next few days, along with my excuses) but a thing that I did read and enjoy was the new Rainbow Rowell.

A thing I do not address here that is nonetheless worth talking about is, as Din pointed out in a conversation elsewhere, the extent to which the book’s premise is gendered and what it does with that. Probably a task for someone other than me, considering how bad I’ve been at writing words down lately.

Here is a column, anyway.

 

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Neal is the perfect father, working from home and looking after the children, cooking healthy meals for the family, making the house beautiful. His wife Georgie is a comedy writer who does not cook, works long hours and, horror of horrors, has chosen to prioritise attempting to achieve her dream job over her family this Christmas.

This is the situation with which Rainbow Rowell’s Landline opens. Neal flies home to his family, taking the children with him and avoiding Georgie’s calls. Georgie is left to spend the few days before Christmas alone. Then by chance she uses the landline in her mother’s house to call her husband and finds herself talking to Neal again—not the Neal of 2013, but the Neal of 1998, when he and Georgie had just become a couple and when she used to call him on this number.

The conceit is vaguely science-fictional (a phone that allows you to call someone in the past); the execution is not. Some of the staples of time travel fiction show up later in the story—conversations with characters who are dead in the book’s present, the potential for paradoxes, the suggestion that these conversations are a part of the past which the Neal of the present remembers. But all of this is relegated to the background, existing merely to put these characters into this situation. It’s not science fiction, and I suspect this may be important to a reading of it.

I think more than anything else Landline is in dialogue with a particular sort of romance narrative, and one I’m very susceptible to, that has the teenaged romance of the nineties as a sort of ideal of the form. It works because we find the story of the young protagonists meeting at the college magazine, falling in love through a series of misunderstandings, worrying about the future familiar and likeable; for readers (women in particular, since this sort of narrative tends to be marketed to us) it’s a story we grew up with.

It’s no surprise, then, that at times the young Neal is more appealing than adult Neal, even to Georgie. “She hoped this was the right Neal. (She didn’t mean the right Neal, she meant the young one.)” Youth and young love are important because beginnings are important; for much of the book Georgie is allowed to believe that if she can only say the right things to the Neal of the past, she has a chance of fixing her relationship with the Neal of the present.

Where Landline is interesting, though, is in the moments when it challenges this construction of romance and forces us to see these characters as flawed adults who have already said the right things, who have begun well but still need to work on what they have.

And perhaps this is the deeper reason why this book is not a science fictional novel. The time travel story of necessity generally constructs time as a series of events that lead to other events, so that changing one small thing can affect the whole world. Everything may be connected, in a butterfly effect sort of way, but some form of cause-effect relationship is still there and the only reason we can’t plot it out is the impossibility of sufficient data. With the right amount of knowledge perhaps we could go back in time and kill Hitler and not cause any awful effects to our own world.

No, suggests Landline, you can’t just swoop in and change things, however much you want to, because things are constantly moving and human relationships are a work in progress. Rowell’s book ends with a grand gesture that is narratively satisfying, but we’re never allowed to believe this is the end of the characters’ problems. Time and relationships don’t work that way, even if you have a magic phone.

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