Rainbow Rowell is possibly best known for her New York Times bestseller, “Eleanor and Park,” a young-adult novel about an unlikely high school pair with a snappy, sophisticated voice that also appealed to grown-ups. Her new novel, “Landline,’’ a tale of a couple in their 30s that get a chance to look back in time, is intended for adults but may draw some interest from teen and 20-something readers.
As the novel opens, we meet Georgie McCool (yes, really), a television writer in Los Angeles who is nostalgic for a less complicated time. Her career is about to take off, but her marriage to her college sweetheart is on the rocks, and she rarely has time for her kids.
After years of writing a sitcom called “Jeff’d Up’’ — “basically ‘Home Improvement’ without anything good’’ in it — Georgie and her writing partner Seth, who also happens to be in love with her, finally have a shot at developing their pilot, “Passing Time,’’ an hourlong “dramedy’’ about “the angst of high school life.” The catch? They have to write four episodes in 10 days, which means working through Christmas.
Georgie is excited about the opportunity to finally create a show she’s proud of, but her husband, Neal, refuses to cut her any slack, insisting that they stick to their holiday plans to visit his mother in Omaha. After arguing about it, he decides to take their girls and go without her, leaving her to her work.
Georgie is so upset she finds herself incapable of getting work done so she goes to her mother’s house for the holidays in neighboring Reseda and sleeps in her childhood bedroom, which her mother turned into the “pug trophy room” for her show dogs.
When her cellphone dies, Georgie finds a clunky, yellow rotary phone in her closet that she had bought at a garage sale back in high school and plugs it into the wall so she can talk to Neal.
This is where things for Georgie and the plot take a paranormally complex turn. She calls Neal at his mother’s house and has a brief conversation with Neal’s deceased father, Mr. Grafton.
At first Georgie assumes she’s having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode (“That’s what Georgie’s brain was good at. Episodic story telling.”) but over the course of several conversations with Neal,
It becomes apparent that the Neal she is talking to isn’t her husband of 14 years, but Neal, the introverted cartoonist she’d fallen in love with while working at their college magazine, The Spoon.
After overcoming the initial shock, Georgie figures out that “old Neal” is home for Christmas break after their big fight senior year of college: “it made sense that she’d actually flash back to the one time Neal actually had left her.”
Georgie begins to use her conversations with “old Neal” as a way to figure out what went wrong in their marriage, as they discuss whether or not they should stay together — only college student Neal is weighing breaking up with a girlfriend, while Georgie is a mother of two weighing whether to keep her marriage together.
Many of the scenes flashing back to their college days are among the book’s best. The dialogue flows naturally; it’s zippy, funny, and fresh. The flirtation between young Georgie and Neal is genuinely romantic.
But eventually the conceit starts wearing thin as Georgie’s conversations with “old Neal” become a little repetitive as they wonder (again and again) whether love is enough to sustain their relationship.
And while it’s not that hard to swallow the concept of a magic phone, it’s Georgie’s lack of autonomy and her inability to grow as a character that begins to lack believability. While the major male characters, Neal and Seth, make all sorts of proactive decisions (Neal flies the girls to Omaha; Seth is the propelling force behind ensuring “Passing Time’’ is developed, and later confesses his love to Georgie), Georgie doesn’t make any real decisions or experience growth until the final pages — and that feels less than satisfying.
Just as Georgie and Neal find it difficult to sustain the vigor and attraction of their early relationship, Rowell similarly strains to sustain interest in her characters as they approach middle age and seems at her best in recounting earlier days.
Sophie Flack, author of “Bunheads,” has contributed to The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and O Magazine. Follow her on twitter @sophieflack.