Rainbow Rowell has built her remarkable—and newly successful—career on the simple advice of her agent: “When in doubt, write your next book.” And write she has. Rowell’s four novels have been released in rapid succession since 2012, the newest being Landline, her second foray into the world of adult fiction. It’s a classic love story: girl meets boy in college, girl marries boy, girl discovers a magical phone that allows her to talk to boy in the past and then uses it possibly to save her now struggling marriage. Well, perhaps it’s a bit more complicated than classic, but Rowell confesses that she appreciates an opportunity to flex her literary muscles. “I am drawn to narratives and structures that challenge me,” she said during a telephone interview. “I wonder if I can pull that off. That’s exciting and interesting to me.”
Landline’s Georgie is a television writer on the brink of her dream job, while her husband, Neal, is the primary caretaker of their two young children—a setup reflective of Rowell’s blossoming career and her husband’s role as a stay-at-home dad. After an argument, Neal angrily takes the children to their grandmother’s for the holidays while Georgie stays behind to work on her big TV show pitch to the network. As she finds herself losing her connection to Neal in the present, she stumbles upon one to past, prehusband Neal via the landline in her old bedroom at her mother’s house. “I really liked the idea that she and her husband, because of these conversations that are happening in the past, enter the marriage with different knowledge of each other,” Rowell admits. “When you read the book, you realize that the characters in the past and the present are all working with different information.”
And such is the same for readers, who track the story along with Georgie for the big reveal and can delight in the small mystery that Rowell’s first dabbling in magical realism provides. However, at its core, Landline is the story of a marriage, and Rowell is a master of both the small tics of human attraction—Georgie’s distracting and obsessive adoration of Neal’s lips, for example—and the broader efforts of a lasting partnership, including the tumultuous balance between work and family. “I wanted to write about how a marriage changes every day. You’re recommitting to that relationship and redefining it and falling in love with that person over and over and over again if you want to stay married,” she explains. “And you’re going to have days or months or years where it is really hard, but that doesn’t mean that you’re in a bad marriage. It just means that you’re alive and you’re functioning and you’re moving.”
On the surface, it all appears to fall under the sometimes dreaded term women’s fiction, but Landline’s observational wit, smart characterization, and penchant for 1980s references make the novel read like a beloved sitcom. Besides, Rowell is hardly bothered by the classification. “I don’t think about it at all,” she quickly states. “I can’t think about what shelf my books are going to go on. I certainly don’t think I’m writing books only for women, and I think more men would enjoy my books if they were open to reading books by women.”
While the gender debate rages on, readers can take one important lesson from Rowell’s latest offering: the importance of action. We don’t all have Georgie’s luxury of a time-traveling phone to help fix our past relationship mistakes, and until Apple programs that feature on the iPhone, all we can do is make the effort of “really trying to stay on the same page as that person” before the line goes dead for good.