“Things did not go bad for Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad and good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And than, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they’d tipped so far over into bad they’d settled there. If Georgie could talk to herself in the past, before the scales had tipped, what would she say? Love him more.”
Landline is the story of a marriage between Georgie and Neal from its first, heady moments upon meeting in college (“Neal didn’t take Georgie’s breath away, but the opposite, he filled her lungs with air”) until the moments right before Christmas 2013 when their marriage appears to be ending.
Georgie is a headstrong, outspoken comedian and writer who wholeheartedly pursues Neal from the very first, “she had added Neal to this list of things she wanted and needed and was bound to have someday. Georgie had decided, cocksure, that Neal was what she needed to be happy.” Neal is a soft-spoken, Midwestern boy, unclear of what the future had in store for him, a boy in love with Georgie and willing to make her dreams his own without any thought to what that would mean in the future.
And so their life begins, Georgie charging forward toward the life that she wants — working and writing for television in LA — and Neal, aimless and in love, along for whatever ride Georgie took him on. “Georgie had tied Neal to her so tight…because she wanted him, because he was perfect for her, even if she was not perfect for him. Because she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” As the years pass, Georgie needs more from Neal (to care for the house, to raise their daughters, to smooth out her sadness and failures) and needs Neal, as a partner, less and less. She has ignored his growing unhappiness, his sadness at always having to take a backseat to her goals and dreams, and hoped that his love for her would be enough to keep the marriage together.
Finally, Neal has had enough and tells Georgie that this time she will have to choose Christmas with the family or work, that he will not cancel the holiday and disappoint loved ones to accommodate her work schedule. Georgie choose work, Neal goes. Only hours later does she begin to realize that Neal might have left forever. Frantic at their miscommunication, she tries repeatedly to get in touch with Neal on his cell but no calls or texts will go through. Only when she calls on her mother’s landline to his mother’s landline can she reach him…and when she does it is not the Neal of 2014 that she reaches, but Neal circa 1998, the Christmas before they married.
Fearing a nervous breakdown Georgie ends the call and tries to ignore the rising terror she feels at not being to get in touch with Neal. These fears force her to really look at the past sixteen years — really look, no rose colored glasses, no “I’ll deal with this another day” — to see if she can find what went wrong. As the days pass, the only version of Neal she can reach on the phone is the one from 1998, so she engages him as best she can in a dialogue about their marriage. A marriage she is desperate not to let go of, and one he does not know yet exists. In Georgie’s darkest moments, she has to admit to 1998 Neal that choosing to marry her will make him happy at times but also very, very unhappy at others. Present day “Neal was not happy or unhappy…he never pushed or pulled, but he was pissed, resentful, tired, bitter and lost.” Georgie had allowed him to be so, “because she had come to need Neal, he had become like air to her” and she would not let him go, even if it was best for him.
What follows is an amazingly unique and magical story of one woman’s attempt to examine the past and present of her marriage to determine whether or not clinging to Neal, circa 2013, is what is best for him. She must confront her own selfishness, her demons about whether she worthy of love, her fear of abandonment, and what is means to be in marriage that is truly a partnership. Georgie realizes that she has allowed the everyday to obscure the magical parts of her marriage; she has allowed Neal’s unhappiness to stretch too far, allowed too many to go unsaid…and now she must face the truth, have they strayed too far from loving one another to recover?
Georgie comes to realize that her marriage is not a place she and her husband reside, but a connection they have forged to one another through seventeen years of love and commitment. “You can’t know what it means, really, to crawl into someone’s else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. When Georgie thought of divorcing Neal, she imagined them on two operating tables with a team of doctors trying to unthread their vascular systems.”
Astonishingly touching and so, so tender, this is a novel that I felt deeply moved by…not only for Rowell’s wonderful characters, not only for the magic she weaves into the book with skill and humor, but also for the wonderful examination of love and marriage. As a woman who met her husband in college in 1998, I cannot but feel drawn to her story because Georgie and I share the same cultural frame of reference. In fact, she specifically mentions the first movie my husband and I ever saw together, Life is Beautiful….not to mention umpteen CD’s I also had and shows I watched and loved. Far more importantly, this story touches me because it reminds of what a beautiful, amazing gift a marriage filled with love is and how important it is for us to nurture and care for it so it can thrive.