When I was in college, I had few female friends — the ones I did have were not close, and more often than not they were the girfriends of my guy friends. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and possibly even prided myself on what I saw as passing as “one of the guys.” I wasn’t passing, and looking back now, I can see that while I was busy trying to be the cool girl surrounded by guys, I missed out on a lot by rejecting female bonds.
I couldn’t help but think of my college self when reading Rainbow Rowell’s latest novel, “Landline.” It’s the story of Georgie, the sole female writer on a successful sitcom she hates writing. Georgie’s writing partner, Seth, has been with her, but not “with” her, for 19 years. She’s been married to her husband Neal for 14. They all met while on the staff of their college’s humor magazine, and Georgie’s been the only girl on either of their radars ever since. Seth has a parade of conquests but his work life with Georgie is his most stable relationship. Neal is envious of her career’s success and of Seth, and he hates that they have to live in California, rather than his home state of Nebraska.
I kept thinking how sad it was that, although Georgie’s marriage is falling apart, she has no female friends to talk to about it. Then I read this passage, and realized that Georgie is me from college, except a version who never wised up and realized the supreme value of strong female friendships:
Georgie always kissed first. She always fell for the guy in the room who seemed the least interested in her — the guy who was toxically arrogant, or cripplingly shy, or both. The guy at the party who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. … ‘What’s the point of making a nice guy like me? Nice guys like everybody. … Nothing good is easy. If the guy who hates everyone likes you, you’re good. It means something.’
(I recently wrote very similar sentiments about my own taste in men, so this passage kind of blew me away.)
Georgie’s telling that last part in a flashback, to a friend during their high school years. It sticks out to me not only because of its content, but because it’s the only time in the whole book she’s talking to a female friend. That friend is never mentioned again outside of that page.
Georgie is in dire need of some girl friends and some brunch over which to hash out all this. She is losing it, and herself, and has no one to talk to about it aside from her clueless mother and her teenage younger sister; Georgie, at 37, is practically halfway between them in age. She has Seth, who is at least perceptive enough to know that something is very, very off in Georgie’s world, but he’s more interested in getting her back on her game so they can write their TV show.
Maybe because of this it’s no wonder that Georgie seems to start having strange, possibly psychotic episodes. They involve an old, yellow rotary phone that lets her call Neal in the past, in her efforts to fix the present. This book centers around two people in a marriage who are so completely out of sync that they’re not just in different time zones — she’s in LA, he’s in Omaha — they’re in different time lines for almost the entire book.
Now, stick with me. I usually don’t like my realistic adult workplace novels to mix with my science fiction, but then there’s also this: I’ve always, always been obsessed with the idea of time travel, and being able to go back to right a wrong. Even as a kid, I remember thinking how badly I wished I could go back in time so I could remember to do my math homework and not get called out in class, or so I could prevent a fight with a friend. I still often imagine how amazing it would be to go back to pre-2007 and spend one more day with my mom.
So I went along with it. And it turns out the supernatural element, or as Georgie eloquently calls it throughout, the “magic fucking phone,” is an important plot point, but it doesn’t mean this book is about time travel. It’s about fixing a marriage, and the desperate places our minds will go in order to do so.
Georgie (and Rowell) doesn’t spend a lot of time asking questions about how the phone’s capabilities are possible or what the consequences of it could be. There’s some of that, but it doesn’t bog down the story. After a bit you fully accept that it’s happening and you don’t mind because you just want to read more of what 2013 Georgie and 1998 Neal have to say to each other. It’s comforting. Plus, who hasn’t wished, at least once, that they could go back and re-live the early days of a relationship, when things were still exciting and new? When you didn’t yet know what those things were that you would someday fight about, again and again?
Neal from 1998 is very different from present-day Neal. You really feel for Georgie, who loves both, and all, versions desperately. NPR noted that this is not a book about falling in love. It’s a book about staying in love.
I’ve read three books by Rowell this summer. She is my new favorite author, and I love how she writes dialogue, love, and human emotion for the realistic and loveable characters she creates. Her writing is beautiful and honest and makes me laugh and cry — at times both, on the same page.
At this point in my life, I consider myself extremely lucky to have the friendships I know now. I’ve even had the rare chance to deepen my relationships with many of those women I knew tangentially in college. Female friendship is not just nice to have — it’s essential, and keeps me from being too inside my own head all of the time. Several women are currently keeping me sane, now that I think about it.
Without them maybe I, too, would be hallucinating about a yellow magic fucking phone.
“Landline,” by Rainbow Rowell, came out July 8 and is available pretty much everywhere books are sold. Its audiobook version is stellar.
Meryl, I love your post. If I want to start reading books by Rowell, is there a particularly good place to start?
I also definitely agree on female friendship. It’s in many ways harder than being friends with men (for me) because it demands more intimacy, but when it finally clicks, it’s so rewarding.
Karen, just saw this! You’ll love Rowell. I read “Eleanor & Park” first, which is probably her most noted. It’s YA, but pretty mature. If you don’t have anything against teenage characters, I’d start there. It’s lovely.
If you prefer adult, read “Attachments”! It’s an epistolary novel made up of the back-and-forth emails of two women working at a newspaper — as read by the IT guy, whose job it is to monitor company emails.
Both are so good. Enjoy!