by Rainbow Rowell

St. Martin's Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-250-04937-7.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 04/30/2015

Fiction: Mainstream

This book has multiple layers. The surface layer is a story about love and marriage. It is what the book blurb says, and it's true... somewhat. Georgie's marriage is in trouble. She loves her husband Neal dearly and she knows he loves her, but their mutual love is obviously not enough to keep their family together. She knows he is unhappy, and it makes her unhappy too.

When he leaves with their two daughters for their annual Christmas with his parents in Omaha, Georgie stays behind in Los Angeles because she has work to do. She is a TV comedy writer. Distraught, drowning in loneliness, and unsure of herself, she can't work, can't eat, can't sleep. She is constantly thinking of ways to fix it. Then she finds a magical phone landline from her mother's house. It lets her communicate with her husband, but not her husband of today. Instead, it connects her to Neal before their marriage, before he proposed. Perhaps she can use this line to her past to fix her present? Or even her future? Or could she instead ruin it all?

The story is poignant and funny, sometimes dipping into real tragedy but never crossing the barbed wire of melodrama. The narrative fluctuate between past and present, as Georgie recalls her meeting with Neal, their quiet romance, their happy moments and their gradual withdrawal from each other. Or rather Neal's gradual withdrawal from her. She is steady in her regard for him. What does she do wrong, she wonders?

Here I have to dig into the deeper layer of the story. I don't think she does anything wrong. The problem Georgie faces is much more profound than one couple's marital unhappiness, and in reality, it can't be fixed by a magical phone. The problem is: Georgie is a Talent. Like any talent, she can't see herself outside her work. It defines her, makes her who she is. In one of their remembered conversations, Neal compares Georgie to the sun, the central shining star of his life. Her talent makes her shine. But it also makes it hard to live with her.

Talents are different. They pour so much of themselves into their creations that they have little left for the mundane world: breakfasts or school concerts, house repairs or laundry. It's not only Georgie but any other major talent on earth. Their family life can only be successful if their mates dedicate themselves to the supporting role.

Unfortunately, men rarely excel in such roles. If you think of any major male Talent—writers, musicians, artists—most of the time, the survival of their marriages could be laid at their wives' feet. These women devoted their lives to their husbands' successes. You all know stories about Pablo Picasso's wife and Vladimir Nabokov's wife and many other wives of famous men. These women had to deal with their husbands' quirks and infidelities, occasional cruelties and customary disregard for conventions. All the burdens of family life was on these women's shoulders. They didn't complain, didn't whine. They accepted their husbands' talents and their eccentric personalities and behaved accordingly.

On the other hand, how many men married successfully to talented women do you know? How many men are ready to erase themselves to let a mere wife outshine them, without their male ego kicking stink? How many famous women ever had successful family life? I don't know the exact statistics but I know the percentage is much lower than for famous men. Edith Piaf—no. Georgia O'Keeffe—nope. Dorothy Parker—no. Talented women have always had trouble maintaining healthy relationships.

Georgie is a Talent. Neal is not. He is a stay-home dad. He deals with cooking and daycare, dry cleaning and home decor, while Georgie works and brings home big bucks. Of course he buckles. He wants a wife who would tell him he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest. Every man wants that.

In the end, the author let Georgie have her happily-ever-after, but I'm not sure if it's a realistic conclusion. I don't think real life often allows for such ending, but the book is fiction after all. Highly recommended.

Rainbow Rowell writes books. Sometimes she writes about adults (Attachments and Landline). Sometimes she writes about teenagers (Eleanor & Park and Fangirl). But she always writes about people who talk a lot. And people who feel like they're screwing up. And people who fall in love. When she's not writing, Rainbow is reading comic books, planning Disney World trips and arguing about things that don't really matter in the big scheme of things. She lives in Nebraska with her husband and two sons. Visit her website.

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