In the past year, Rainbow Rowell has been mighty prolific, wowing everyone – with good reason – with young-adult books Eleanor and Park and Fangirl. This time she is writing for adults, but hitting that teenage feeling spot-on.
This is a book about love, the long-lasting, difficult, founded-in-youth kind of love. This is also a book about writing, about a time loop, and about a magic phone.
Georgie McCool is a sitcom writer who has just had some luck with a major project. Her long-suffering husband, Neal, and her two daughters, Alice and Noomi, are headed to Omaha for Christmas from their home in California, but Georgie must stay back to work on her show with her writing partner, Seth. A rift in the marriage opens as a result.
Distraught from the tension, Georgie spends evenings at her mother’s house for the company. Trying to contact her husband, Georgie uses the old rotary phone in her teenage bedroom, only to find it connects her to a past Neal, a Neal from a parallel week in 1998, when the two spent time apart and almost broke up.
Georgie is able to do what every long-time lover dreams of doing: to go back to the beginning, and relive it all over again, with hindsight. Pulling through the threads of the relationship, she vacillates between visceral longing and a feeling of obligation to convince Neal – who has no idea he’s speaking to a future Georgie – that he won’t be happy with her later on.
When done well, a time loop is perhaps one of the most satisfying plot devices a story can be wrapped around. The possibility that Georgie and Neal’s children will fade away feels very real. It’s not all perfectly tied up, but in the hazy emotional memory of love, then and now, it doesn’t need to be.
Rowell extracts the most sentient aspects of a fully adult love story, aligning with cinema and TV more than books, and it’s more than okay – think more the best moments of Cheers or Roseanne or even M.A.S.H. Think the best of blue-collar love, the sweaty, rough, hard parts of love all spun together. And it’s more believable than any of those, and it feels more real maybe than real life.
Rowell is best when talking about what’s difficult, and very little here is easy, though all handled with a deft language so subtle it is barely noticeable. More gentle, more real than Douglas Coupland, more smooth and also more clever than Helen Fielding. Truly, slowly, sweetly gorgeous.
Lauren Bride reviews young-adult fiction for The Globe and Mail.