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This review is from: Landline: A Novel (Hardcover)
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Rainbow Rowell's new novel is marketed as adult contemporary rather than young adult, but in some ways it's a less complex and "grown-up" book than last year's FANGIRL. The two have similar premises-- each deals with a writer caught in a sort-of love triangle with a suave writing partner and another man who's both charming and infuriating in his stolid devotion-- and are similar in tone, heavy on quirky banter and gentle mockery of the characters' idiosyncrasies. But where FANGIRL balanced its essentially predictable romantic storyline with subplots that added character development and kept the overall pace under control, LANDLINE provides unnecessary detail about its main plot and leaves the secondary characters as flat devices for comic relief. The resulting novel is still charming, if you enjoy Rowell's style, but it's all entertainment and very little substance.
The protagonist, Georgie McCool, is a sitcom writer. She's been working for years on a popular but terrible show, and has just gotten an unexpected opportunity to pitch her dream series. The catch? She has to have it ready in a week, which will mean skipping Christmas with her husband Neal and their daughters. He's not happy about this, and after they leave Georgie begins to worry that he's leaving, not just for the holidays, but for good. It doesn't help that, thanks to a dead cell phone and a series of coincidences (or are they?), she can't get in touch with him to find out just what's going on. Then, after plugging in an old home phone, she gets through to Neal-- but not to the right Neal. Somehow she's talking to the version of him from fifteen years ago, when they were still dating and had their last big fight. is this a chance to address the problems in their marriage before they start... or a chance to stop a marriage that never worked in the first place?
The answer to that is pretty obvious, and the way it plays out is heavy on romantic comedy cliche and light on emotionally mature drama. I don't demand great complexity from novels like this, but I did hope Rowell would offer more of a twist on the well-worn tropes. Instead, she reiterates the basic conflict in a series of cross-temporal phone calls and flashbacks that are frequently amusing but don't add anything new; the middle hundred pages in particular suffer from lack of momentum. Appearances by her mother, her young stepfather, her teenage sister, and her fellow writers succeed as comic diversions but ultimately feel like filler because none of them have much depth. (It doesn't help that Rowell can't write about the life of a sitcom writer with the level of credible detail she brings to high school and college students.) The secondary characters in FANGIRL weren't necessarily any richer than the ones here, but they were given real conflicts without easy answers that balanced the familiar, upbeat resolution of the main narrative. Here the subplots pay off in a hectic but ultimately heartwarming set piece, the prose equivalent of a B-story from Georgie's trite sitcom.
The problem with by-the-numbers romantic comedy is that it often requires its characters to act in ways that would be emotionally unhealthy if you bothered to take them seriously, rather than assuming that love and good intentions would overcome any obstacle. The fact that Georgie and Neal have basically been having the same fight for fifteen years would be a bad sign, if this were the kind of novel that really wanted to delve into the issues it brought up. But it doesn't, and that's fair enough. As a light-hearted romantic comedy with sci-fi elements, this is a solid read, though you might end up wishing Rowell had taken her characters and situations just a little bit further.