Friday, October 24, 2014

Literary Phone Book Reading

What is the literary equivalent of "I would pay cash money to listed to her read from the phone book?"  Because I used to say that about actors I loved (hell, I still might give a nickel to Matt Smith if he'd read me a couple pages from the W's), but I kind of think this describes how I feel about Rainbow Rowell.

As you may know, I loved Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, and I found Attachments charming when I suspended disbelief and my squick reflex regarding the stalky overtones.  So I figured Landline would be fine, even if the crumbling marriage aspect seemed really too depressing to be redeemed by her ability to charm me.  I went in figuring it would be a charming veneer on a total bummer of a story, probably with a pasted-on upbeat ending.

Well, I have my thoughts on the ending, but I should never have underestimated Rowell.  Georgie McCool, the improbably named heroine (kind of?) of this novel, is infuriating and lovable at the same time, and her problems are big and both inevitable and caused by her own bad choices, and this book says SO MANY things about relationships that I keep getting sidetracked from the many thoughts it has generated on magic phones and the ability to change the past.

Okay, so short story: Georgie is married to the love of her life, Neal, who is a stay-at-home dad to their two young daughters. She's also incredibly passionate about her career as a TV writer, and she and her writing partner/best friend, Seth, have the chance of a lifetime--to pitch their pet project, the show they've been dreaming of and working toward for years, to a very interested producer.

Only problem: they have a TON of work to do before the meeting in on week.  And it's Christmas.

When Georgie tells Neal she has to work over Christmas, she figures she's ruining the holiday by canceling their trip to see Neal's family in Omaha.  But instead, Neal takes the kids and goes without her, and Georgie isn't quite sure what this means about their relationship.  But when she tries to call Neal in Omaha on the old landline at her mother's house, she gets Neal in Omaha--only not her Neal.  Young Neal, a Neal who hasn't proposed to her yet.  She talks with Neal in the past, trying to get a feel for what's wrong with her marriage, and how it could have gone differently, and whether there is any way that two people who are fundamentally Georgie and Neal can ever really be happy together.

Okay, this is already a long post and I'm just finishing up with the premise of this book.  There are SO many things I want to talk about.  Someone I was talking to was saying that they didn't think it would be a good book club book, but I think it would be an AMAZING book club book, provided you had a certain type of book club.  No book club I've ever been in has fit the profile, though: my old ones were too literary, reading novels from a writerly/lit crit point of view, while my new one is composed primarily of single people about 8 years younger than me.   But the prototypical book club I picture--married ladies with kids meeting mostly to gossip and dish and talk about how they liked the book--could get a LOT of mileage out of this.

And because I have SO MANY THINGS TO SAY, we're doing them discussion guide style.  I love numbered lists--they save so much trouble in organizing your thoughts.

1) Start off with a softball: if you had a magic phone--well, the obvious question is who would you call, but what I want to know is, who would you tell?  Would you try to convince someone?  Would you think you were going crazy?  Would you try to document it scientifically or just start dialing?

2) Did you feel, as I did, that Neal going to Omaha without her was the obvious solution and not a crisis?  I mean, there's a crisis going on--he's mad, and she deserves it, I think--but it's not this Christmas that's the problem.  If you spend 15 years showing up in your marriage, choosing work one time, even for The Big Holiday, is not the end of the world.  Christmas is the straw that broke the camel's back here, right?

3) So why was Georgie like this?  I mean, yeah, she loves her job, but it's more than that.  You can love your job and show up for your family, even if you don't have a ton of hours.  You can be present.  Where did she go wrong?

4) Answer (and next question): Seth.  Seth, Seth, Seth.  He's the elephant in the room/book, right?  I mean, he's there, but mostly as an object.  To Georgie he's an object; to Neal he's a subject.  Is Neal righter than Georgie?  In college, Georgie was waiting around for him to choose her, and I'm betting he'd have kept her hanging for decades while he went through hot babes, had she not chosen Neal.  But did she, really.  Does Seth get more of the best parts of Georgie than Neal does--not her work, but Seth?

5) I think this marriage could be interpreted in more than one way.  I felt like Georgie had been screwing up for years, but I've heard it said that she gave up a lot for Neal, and that's not how it looks to me.  How much variability do you imagine in people's responses to this?

6) Really, it's Neal who screwed up by choosing Georgie, right?  She's the one who came with requirements, and he chose to take them on.  The fact that she blows him off for Seth all the time is on her, but even before this, he knew that she wanted to work as a TV writer and run in those circles, and he hated it, and he signed up for it.  Jesus, it just gets more impossible the more I think about it.

7) The ending.  Too pat, or way too pat?  It's like all these complicated, impossible questions that are set up are solved at the end of the half hour.

Really, the book is kind of glib.  It's like it was written for TV--honestly, it might make a decent rom-com, if a mostly-unhappy married couple nearing 40 could be described as rom-com material.

This is definitely my least favorite Rainbow Rowell book so far, but that's like saying it's my least favorite flavor of ice cream.  If you gave me a cone of peppermint stick, I would still feel only pleased to have ice cream.  Whatever else was going on here, it was fun to read.

And, before I go and while on the subject of Rainbow Rowell, check out this video recreating a really touching scene from Fangirl.  The guy's a bit too old, but still, this is romance.


Lianna Williamson said...

Ha! Yes, Landline would be perfect for my book club. Unfortunately, it's not out in paperback yet, which is why I ultimately chose Feed. Next time my turn rolls around I'll pick Landline.

1. If I had a magic phone to the past, I don't think I would tell anybody. I've always felt like if I were abducted by aliens or saw the Loch Ness monster, I would just keep it to myself, because I wouldn't want to put anyone I cared about in the position of trying to believe something so patently ridiculous.

2. Agree completely that Georgie working through Christmas for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Neal taking the kids to visit his lonely widowed mother are not, in themselves, problems. The real problem is clearly a pattern of conflicting wants and needs coupled with fairly sucky communication.

3 & 4. I feel like maybe what this story is really about is Georgie finally, 15+ years later, getting to a place where she doesn't view Neal as a consolation prize for not having Seth. And maybe also realizing that she needs the stability and love of Neal in her life in order to be able to create with Seth.

5. I definitely felt the marriage was way more complicated than "everything is Georgie's (and possibly Seth's) fault". While I don't think that marrying someone with a demanding career means you forfeit all rights to be disgruntled about it, I still felt like Neal needed to suck it up a little better. In fact, I wondered how much of his resentment toward her career was envy-- that she was more successful than he, and that she had a career she was so passionate about.

6. To slightly contradict what I just said: yeah, in a sense Neal knew what he was getting into, but like so many people in similar situations, he put his faith in True Love Conquering All. It's one thing to intellectually understand that marrying a TV writer/surgeon/cop/soldier/person with a chronic illness (as I did) will be challenging, and another thing entirely to live with those challenges day in and day out, for years and then decades. Also, I think having kids makes any problems feel both more urgent and more daunting.

7. I liked the book better than you did, I think-- but still, way too pat. I didn't mind at all that it had a happy ending. I just wish Georgie didn't have to flush her dreams down the toilet to achieve it.

I would love to discuss the book with Rowell herself. She's a wife, a mother, and a writer. What has she herself sacrificed in the balance between Family and Art?

And now, a question of my own:

How would the underlying message of the book be different if the sexes were reversed (George and Nell, let's say)? Or would it be different at all?

LibraryHungry said...

I've thought about your question, too. I feel like it would be equally icky, and I'd still think the workaholic was a lousy spouse and would still be cheering for the stay at homer to find a real life of their own, with or without the workaholic. I think I would be less annoyed at a woman in Neal's position, though, because it's quite easy for a woman in our culture to find herself on a path she didn't choose deliberately, and waking up to that later in life makes a kind of sense. Whereas it's less likely that a man would become an unfulfilled SAHD by default without noticing how he felt about the choices.

I think you're right about a lot of the things you point out, but I also think the book is kind of simplistic in how it deals with them. Like, the Georgie/Seth thing is really not addressed head on, except in a rom-com kind of "too bad it can't be" way. And the whole point of the book is the folly of true love conquering all, except that the whole end kind of hinges on that. I mean, yeah, Georgie's resolved to do better, but there's a huge difference between a resolution + Big Romantic Gesture and the day to day grind of showing up.

I was really tripped up by how they'd been "working" on this show for 15 years but didn't have any other scripts, not even crummy ones to start with. Similarly, I had some doubts about whether things might still work out on the show front, even with her bailing out. I was way more annoyed when she was sitting around talking to Neal on the magic phone or waiting to, as though *that* counted as working on her marriage when she could be out there working on her marriage. Or could have done it at any point in time before then.

I really wish there had been more to the Seth/Georgie thing--the "work husband" phenomenon is an interesting one. But this book just brought up a lot of cool, complicated ideas and then treated them very rom-com superficially. And it was a sweet, charming rom-com, but I wanted more meat.

Aarti said...

I missed this post somehow!

I don't think Neal going to Omaha with his girls was a crisis, but I think Georgie started to feel it was a crisis when Neal never answered her phone and was always "away." (This was also never explained.)

I think for this story to have worked better for me, Seth needed to be fleshed out a lot more. And he wasn't, so I didn't really understand the triangle situation there. I also don't really think Georgie blows Neal off for Seth all the time - I think Georgie prioritizes WORK and Neal takes that as Georgie prioritizing Seth.

LibraryHungry said...

God, yes, I needed to understand Seth way more. I feel like I totally got the Georgie/Seth relationship in college--that is such a familiar 20-year-old feeling to me. But there's no indication of how it changed over time.

My surmise that Georgie's divided attention was not just about work but about Seth is specifically from one anecdote about a trip to Disneyland where she spent the whole time on a bench on her cellphone talking Seth down from a freak out about something. I mean, long hours is one thing, but that was the point that made me really feel like it was him that was the problem. And not even their relationship, but his need to be the center of attention and her not drawing clear lines around that. Seth seemed full of himself, and it wasn't clear how Georgie stood up to that.