Longer than a tweet

How does communication affect our relationships with people?


“She opened the closet and dug through a pile of leftover junk until she found an antique, yellow rotary phone; she’d bought it herself at a garage sale back in high school--because she’d been exactly that kind of pretentious” (Rowell 25).

Landline phones have long since become a thing of the past. I’ve never seen an actual landline in my life, unless you count the one I had as a kid that made calls to pre-recorded princesses. So like things of the past, what happens to us as we get older? Or more specifically, our relationships? Much like the landline, our connections with people usually cut off once things get too hard. When the dial is just too difficult to turn. Georgie McCool and Neal Grafton know more than anyone in Rainbow Rowell’s adult fiction novel, Landlines.

“Sometimes she lost her place when she was arguing with Neal. The argument would shift into something else--into something more dangerous--and Georgie wouldn’t even realize it. Sometimes Neal would end the conversation or abandon it while she was still making her point, and she’d just go on arguing long after he’d checked out” (Rowell 6).

When I started this book, it became quite apparent which characters fit the theme’s parts best. Georgie was on one side of the coin. Always asking for a conversation, always begging for an answer in her head and wishing it was the one that fit best with her thoughts. And Neal, her husband, on the flipside being one who most usually didn’t talk. You can probably see why this relationship might not end well. Now, a lot of times people will say that opposites attract. But how well can things go if you put a talker and thinker at a dinner table for one hour? Or in this case, seventeen years.

But these two aren’t completely unaware of each other. They do love one another. They even have two kids, seven-year-old Alice and four-year-old Naomi. But just as Christmas is coming up, Georgie is asked to stay behind for work while the family goes to Nebraska. Keep in mind that this family lives in California, and Georgie is asking to be absent seven days from her family’s life. During Christmas. But Georgie’s job as a comedy writer for TV sitcoms has never had such a big break. And as soon as she tells Neal, she sees the blow it has left in the aftermath. But what can she do when lately the two have been so deaf to each others needs?

“Neal stepped up to her and looked over her shoulder, like he was thinking. “We land at five,” he said, “Central time So it’ll be around three here...I’ll call you when we get to my mom’s.”

Georgie nodded, but he still wasn’t looking at her.

“Be safe,” she said.

He checked his watch. “We’ll be fine-don’t worry about us. Just do what you have to do. Rock your meeting.” And then he was hugging her, sort of, an arm around her shoulder, his mouth bumping against hers. By the time he said, “Love you,” he was already pulling away.

Georgie wanted to catch him by the shoulders.

She wanted to hug him until her feet left the ground.

She wanted to tuck her head into his neck and feel his arms a little too hard around her ribs.

“Love you,” she said. She wasn’t sure if he heard her” (Rowell 18).

So Neal goes to Nebraska with the kids, and Georgie stays in California. Who knew this would cause one of the biggest rifts in their relationship since they met in college? Georgie already has anxiety that Neal is unhappy. She voices it repeatedly in the book, another repercussion of their miscommunication. As an ambivert of sorts Georgie thinks herself needy at times, and blames herself for Neal being unhappy.

“Neal wasn’t happy. Neal hadn’t been happy for a long time.

He didn’t complain about it. He didn’t say, “I’m unhappy.” (God--in a way, that would be a relief.) He just wore it, breathed it. Held it between them. Rolled away from it in his sleep.  

Neal wasn’t happy, and Georgie was why. And not because of anything she’d ever done or said. Just because of who she was” (Rowell 86).

If you really want to know how communication affects our relationships, this is a perfect example. Neal never said he wasn’t happy. He never turned to Georgie and just outwardly admitted his unhappiness. Like Georgie mentioned, it was just in his actions. It was as simple as the way she knew more about how he acted than by what he said. Its not always the words that make the conversation. Communication is revealed silently by the way we look, by our habits and our instincts. I read somewhere that you know someone’s having a bad day when they don’t sing along to their favorite song. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” isn’t just a silly mantra. It’s truth.

And wanna know what the ultimate action is? Finding a landline phone that allows you to call someone from your past! ... (And cue the straight jacket!) No, but seriously. The main idea of this entire book surrounds the fact that Georgie, who has decided to stay at her mother’s during these secluded seven days, finds an old telephone in her childhood bedroom. And when she tries to call present Neal about how things are going, she instead finds herself landline to landline with 1998 Neal. How ironic that a relationship that is going downhill from loss of communication, is semi-reunited by a telephone? Rainbow Rowell, you dog…

“Was she supposed to change something? If this were Quantum Leap, there’d be something specific she was supposed to change. (This is not Quantum Leap, Georgie--this is your life. You are not Scott Bakula.)

But what if…

Christmas 1998. They fought. Neal went home. He came back. He proposed. They lived not-exactly-happily ever after. Wait, was that what she was supposed to fix? The not-exactly-happy part? How was she supposed to fix something like that, over the phone, when she wasn’t even sure it was fixable?” (Rowell 113).

I think for Georgie and Neal, the phone is a perfect symbol. As young adults who were just learning how to live on their own in 1998, at an age where all they can do is work in an office for a magazine called The Spoon, the landline was their one way of talking. Reading about those two before they were married made me laugh and smile, because it was just the innocence of their interactions. How fresh their love was. For them, it was the first phone call, the two cups with the string holding them together. It reminded me of stories my mom and dad have told me about when they started dating. My mom lived in Iowa and my dad lived in Arizona, and then my mom spent time working in Hawaii and my dad was in some other state. But all that time apart was spent writing letters and making hours long phone calls, the phone bills stacking up time and time again for both of them to pay. It was their way of communication when talking face-to-face just wasn’t possible, just as it was for Georgie and Neal.

“I didn’t know you used real ink,” she said.

He nodded.

“Can I watch?”

He nodded again” (Rowell 56).

Neal is a simple man. Much like myself, he’s the thinker. He mulls and wonders and keeps it all inside. With Georgie, as she stood outside the small room where Neal drew the cartoons for the magazine they worked at, Neal accepted her into his life. This small sign of acknowledgment is what sent this snowball rolling. All it took was two nods and suddenly Georgie was a part of his story.

As the book progresses you learn more and more about Neal and Georgie’s past through these ‘Back to the Future’ phone calls, while also seeing how things will turn out for present Georgie and Neal. All I could think about this contrast was how truly sad it was to see what had become of their relationship. Where in the phone calls it felt like Neal couldn’t get enough of Georgie, couldn’t find enough words to suffice for all the things he thought of her, present Neal wouldn’t even talk to her. Everytime she tries calling Neal (via iPhone), he’s not there. And I think a lot of the time he was trying to figure things out. Like I’ve mentioned before, Georgie=talker. Neal=thinker. But this is where things can get a bit dodgy for relationships, because as much as I hate to admit it, I, too, have fallen victim to the impact of silence. Words are a powerful force, but silence is just as equally if not more of a contender. When Georgie needed reassurance, she turned to Neal, but Neal had already cut off his powerline by the time he’d landed in Nebraska. So what did that mean for Georgie?

Well it meant taking things into her own hands. Listening to Neal on the phone in 1998, remembering all the things they did to become what they are: it was like a breath of fresh air for Georgie. Imagine if, for one phone call, you could talk to someone from your past? Past lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, family, friends. Imagine if you could just talk as if you were there again, in that time way back when, when it seemed like the age you are now was so far away. Obviously, at 15, I can’t say I’d have many people to talk to. Maybe I’d give myself a call to say how stupid things are going to get. That its okay to say that thing you’re thinking, and sometimes you shouldn’t hold back.

But I’d like to think I’d be a bit wiser and instead use that time to appreciate the call spent pretending I was somewhere else. Someone else.  Because for Georgie, the landline calls were her TARDIS. It was her chance to step out of reality and into the shoes of her younger self. But after a while she knew she had to stop pretending, and that she needed to shake out of this Twilight Zone if she wanted to save her marriage.

“She just didn’t want this to be over.

Georgie wasn’t ready to lose Neal yet. Even to her past self. She wasn’t ready to let him go. (Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend. If they'd given her a proper time machine, she probably would have used it to cuddle with him. Let somebody else kill Hitler.) Maybe the Neal she’d talked to all week was on his way to California, maybe he wasn’t, maybe he was a figment of her imagination--but that Neal still felt like he was within reach. Georgie still believed she could make things right with him. Her Neal...

Her Neal didn’t answer anymore when she called. Her Neal had stopped trying to get through to her.

And maybe that meant he wasn’t hers. Not really” (Rowell 260).

Communication. Actions. What speaks louder than flying a plane from Cali to Nebraska on Christmas eve to rehash a possibly unfixable relationship? And as Georgie lands in Nebraska with nothing but the clothes on her back (which are pajamas) and the money in her wallet, it feels right. She’s doing what Neal had once done for her, on the week she swore their relationship was over, when he kneeled on her front step and asked for her hand. The character development is almost surreal because its like Georgie finally realizes that they’re not just the phone calls. Her marriage is not simply made up of words, but also gestures. The building blocks of Neal’s love for her is concocted out of shrugs and smiles and quietly drawn cartoons, not the expected communication using vocal chords. And it’s what might have just led up to them falling in love in the first place.

“He felt his cheeks warm, just thinking about seeing her again. That’s what Georgie did to him. She pulled the blood to the surface of his skin. She acted on him. Tidally. She made him feel like things were happening. Like life was happening--and even if he was miserable sometimes, he wasn’t going to sleep through it” (Rowell 302).

“It’s just--one more thing.”

“Okay, one more thing.”

“I’m going to be better.”

“We both are.”

“I’m going to try harder.”

“I believe you” (Rowel 307).

Both in real life and in books, we need communication. Sign language, jargon, slang, hand gestures. Humans have found an abundance of ways to reveal emotion and speak. And then there’s love, the one that defies them all. Love which tears down the rules and sets up its own with every relationship. For some people, verbal communication is futile. They have to talk it out or else it’s a do-or-die situation. I know people like that, and have come to care about a few myself. And then there’s others like Neal and Georgie, who realized that communication can be found through actions. That sometimes its more important to trudge through a blizzard then to sit around waiting for a storm. And in the end it worked out for them. And even if sometimes they can’t get their tongues to shape the words they need to say, the smaller much more discreet things can do it for them.

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