I’ll confess: I ugly-cried my way through Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell’s young-adult novel about a star-crossed pair of teen outsiders who fall in love in 1980s Omaha. Though I sped through it in a weekend, I had to take breaks to wipe my eyes and blow my nose, so racked was I at times with sobs. The novel, rich with humor and actualized characters and empathy, is one of those books that a lot of people just seem to feel, as if on some basic human level that goes beyond reading. That’s what it was for me, as my tears confirmed.
Of course, I am one of those adults who loves reading YA, especially the “more sophisticated than ever” “realistic fiction” against which Ruth Graham positioned herself in her recent piece for Slate, which referred specifically to Eleanor & Park, among other books. I do so shamelessly, without regard for the age-based embarrassment Graham suggests my fondness for the category should make me feel. When I was a kid, I read YA and I read “adult books”; today, I still read plenty of both. But there’s a special place in my heart for books about and intended for teens (though publishers would be the last to try to prevent adults from reading them). So, after I finished Eleanor & Park, I tore through Rowell’s third book, Fangirl, a YA novel that skews slightly older as a coming-of-age story about a college student who writes fanfiction.
Rowell, though, is not only a YA writer: Her first book, Attachments, is the story of two grown women and the IT guy, who, tasked with monitoring their email, falls in love with one of them. Now her new novel, Landline, returns to full-blown adult territory. Given the recent entry in the endless discussion over what adults should and should not be reading, I was curious to see how Landline compared to Eleanor & Park. As an adult book, would it truly challenge me more? Would there be a discernible difference in sophistication, in my emotional takeaway, or in my sheer enjoyment? How much does the category of YA matter to readers, beyond where something gets placed in a bookstore?
In Landline, 37-year-old Georgie McCool—TV writer, wife, and mom of two—is facing a very grown-up dilemma: She’s got a chance to make her dream of creating her own show come true, but if she does, it could come at the cost of her 14-year marriage. Neal is the stay-at-home dad to her working mom, and for as long as they’ve been together Georgie has felt guilty over his unhappiness with her ambitions and their life in L.A. But unlike Neal, Georgie has known what she wanted since college, and while part of what she’s always wanted has been him, the other part is her career. Why should she have to give that up?
It all comes to a head at Christmas, when their planned trip to spend the holidays with Neal’s family in Nebraska conflicts with a sudden opportunity related to the show. Georgie decides to stay in L.A., sending their daughters off with Neal. Then, thanks to a dead cellphone, the complications of time zones and her work, and Neal’s frustration, she can’t seem to get in touch with him at all. Georgie begins to fear her marriage is in serious trouble, and she regresses: crashing with her mom and stepdad for the holidays, wearing Neal’s old T-shirt for days, commiserating with her 18-year-old sister, Heather.
When she plugs in her antique yellow, rotary-dial landline phone (bought “at a garage sale back in high school—because she’d been exactly that kind of pretentious”), the book takes a magical leap of the sort absent from Rowell’s other novels. The landline is a time portal that allows Georgie to connect with a 15-years-ago version of Neal, who when they were 22 had also returned to Nebraska for Christmas following a fight over quite similar issues. Back then, they got through the rough patch with Neal proposing, but now they’re right back there again, their time continuums crossing over a rotary-dial phone. “Maybe these were the versions of themselves that were meant to be together—mature Georgie and mostly unjaded Neal,” thinks Georgie after she realizes what’s happening. “Too bad they couldn’t go on this way.”
While the device of the telephone occasionally seems a little bit clunky—maybe it’s just all that rotary dialing—the way it allows Rowell to bend time back and forth has plenty of interesting ramifications, and makes sense as a technique for an author comfortable writing for and about teens and adults. The show Georgie’s been developing since college is called Passing Time, and the passage of time is key to Landline. Along with the business about the magic phone, Rowell writes numerous flashback scenes, allowing two Georgies to exist in tandem with the two Neals: the fresh twentysomething versions just starting out, and the married, love-worn parents heading into their 40s. This structure allows adult Georgie to revisit her younger self, a technique that doesn’t occur in YA, but which, notably, heightens the experience of reading YA as an adult. The scenes of Neal and Georgie’s first confusing, exciting steps toward love—their awkward conversations and even more awkward make-out sessions—are enjoyable in a way redolent of reading YA. It’s wistfully evocative to pair those scenes with the more stately (and sometimes exhausted) aspects of adult life, and, not least, the comfort and trust a couple grows to place in one another.