Rainbow Rowell Does Romance With A Subversive (Read: Realistic) Twist

Jul 7, 2014
Originally published on July 7, 2014 12:14 pm

Rainbow Rowell writes conventional fiction unconventionally. They're romances, but there's no meeting-cute, or ripping bodices — the people in them seem real.

Rowell got a lot of attention last year for her best-selling young adult romance, Eleanor & Park, about a half-white, half-Korean boy who falls in love with an overweight white girl. Her newest novel, and her second for adults, is called Landline.

"Our cellphones can do everything, but they're bad at letting us talk to each other," Rowell grouses. She misses the not-so-long-ago era of landlines, so one of the characters in her new book is a phone — one that's yellow, rotary and plugs into a wall. In the 1990s, Rowell says, landlines were for her a critical — even visceral — tool for romance.

"Having that cord in your mouth, that twisty cord, and the way that you would bite on it," she enthuses, "or the feeling of the little holes in the receiver up against your mouth, or how immediate the other person's voice was. It's very difficult, I think, especially on two cellphones, to have a romantic conversation."

Landline's main character is Georgie, a busy mom who works in television. Her husband, Neal, is a stay-at-home dad. They separate ostensibly for a family vacation, but maybe for real. Then Georgie finds a magic phone that lets her call her husband in the past, in the early days of their courtship:

It was like getting him back. Her Neal. (Her old Neal.)

He was right there and she could ask him anything she wanted.

"Tell me more about the mountains," Georgie said, because she wasn't really sure what to ask. Because "tell me where I went wrong" might break the spell.

And because what she wanted more than anything else was just to keep listening.

"The device of the landline is so clever," says book critic and occasional NPR contributor Amal El-Mohtar, "it's so, so clever." And, she points out, because it's a Rainbow Rowell romance, Landline upends genre expectations. "This is definitely a romance story that doesn't get told very often — the story of staying in love as opposed to falling in love."

Rowell says she was concerned about showing characters falling in love. Even though she loves romantic comedies, she hates it when the main characters experience love through a really good montage to a Motown soundtrack.

"I get so frustrated by that because I love love stories," she exclaims. "They're my favorite thing about every story."

That's why The Empire Strikes Back is her favorite part of the Star Wars trilogy — the romance between Han and Leia. But for someone who loves romances, Rowell is awfully fond of subverting them.

"In my mind, every single female character I've written is plus-size," she says firmly, meaning main characters — her romantic protagonists. "I enjoy stories about thin women — I read them frequently. I enjoy them, I root for those characters, but I always feel like there are enough of them out there and there are enough of them in the spotlight."

Rowell's plus-sized romantic characters are not pathologized or fetishized. Eleanor of Eleanor & Park is brave, smart, curious and resourceful. She manages to keep it together while living in a low-income, frighteningly abusive family. She's described as big and awkward, and her boyfriend, Park, is passionately in love with her.

Rowell says, "One of the questions I get from people who have just read Eleanor & Park is, 'How fat is Eleanor? She's not that fat, is she?' I get that all the time."

As if there's no way a fat female character could be desirable. Which runs, obviously, counter to reality.

"You know, attraction is something that happens between two people and not between anyone else," Rowell says. "Nobody else gets to vote on who you are attracted to. It isn't as if just, you know, only this certain type of person gets to fall in love."

Just writing about the one type of beauty that gets so much play everywhere else strikes Rowell as silly. She also challenges the idea that a wedding is the end point of a romance, or that once heroines meet their Mr. Rights everything will be A-OK from that point forward.

"That's a fallacy because they are going to change and change and change," she says. "And you are going to change and change and change. And it's so much more like agreeing to change next to each other."

And that's where Rowell's real sense of romantic subversion comes in.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Author Rainbow Rowell writes conventional fiction unconventionally. Her stories are romances - romances minus the meet-cute or ripped bodices and with characters who seem real. Rowell got a lot of attention last year for her young adult best-seller, "Eleanor & Park." It's about a half-Korean, half-white boy who falls in love with an overweight white girl. Rowell's newest novel is for adults. She talked to NPR's Neda Ulaby about the book called, "Landline."

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Rainbow Rowell really misses that not-so-long-ago era when people communicated with the help of copper wires running through their houses called landlines.

RAINBOW ROWELL: I mean, our cell phones can do everything but they're very bad at letting us talk to each other.

ULABY: One of the characters in "Landline" is actually a phone. It's yellow, plugs into a wall. Old-fashioned handsets and the lines they were connected to were, for Rowell in the 1990s, a critical, even visceral tool for romance.

ROWELL: Having that cord in your mouth - that twisty cord and the way you'd bite on it, or the feeling of the little holes in the receiver up against your mouth, or how immediate the other person's voice was. It's very difficult, I think, especially on two cell phones to have a romantic conversation.

ULABY: It's difficult period for "Landline's" main character to have a romantic conversation. She's Georgie - a busy mom who works in television. Her husband, Neil, is a stay-at-home dad. They separate extensively for a family vacation but maybe for real. Then she finds a magic phone that lets her call her husband in the past, in the early days of their courtship.

ROWELL: It was like getting him back - her Neil, her old Neil. He was right there and she could ask him anything she wanted. Tell me more about the mountains, Georgie said because she wasn't really sure what to ask because tell me where I went wrong might break the spell, and because what she wanted more than anything else was just to keep listening.

AMAL EL-MOHTAR: The device of the landline is so clever. It's so, so clever.

ULABY: The landline is a metaphor for connection, says book critic Amal El-Mohtar, and for nostalgia. And because it's a Rainbow Rowell romance, she says "Landline" upends genre expectations.

EL-MOHTAR: This is definitely a romance story that doesn't get told very often - the story of staying in love as opposed to falling in love.

ULABY: "Landline" attracts attention in romance - the work of it and how it evolves from the beginning.

ROWELL: I was really concerned about showing how people fall in love.

ULABY: Rowell says when you see her main characters falling in love, it's not like in those romantic comedies when the protagonists start off hating each other.

ROWELL: And then they experience a really good Motown song and then they come out of it in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU'VE GOT MAIL")

TOM HANKS: (As Joe Fox) Oh right, yeah - a snap to find the one single person in world who fills your heart with joy.

ROWELL: I get so frustrated by that because I love love stories. They're my favorite thing about every story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED)

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Like a fool I went and stayed too long.

ULABY: For someone who loves romances so much, Rainbow Rowell is awfully fond of subverting them. For example...

ROWELL: In my mind, every single female character I've written is plus-sized.

ULABY: No offense to thin women.

ROWELL: I enjoy stories about thin women. I read them, you know, frequently. I enjoy them. I root for those characters. But I always feel like there are enough of them out there and there are enough of them in the spotlight.

ULABY: Rowell's plus-sized romantic characters are not pathologized or fetishized. Eleanor in "Eleanor & Park" is brave and smart. She keeps it together while living in a poor, frighteningly abusive family. She is described as big and awkward. And her boyfriend, Park, is passionately in love with her.

ROWELL: One of the questions I get from people who have just read "Eleanor & Park" is how fat is Eleanor? She's not that fat is she?

ULABY: As if there's no way such a character could be desirable.

ROWELL: You know, attraction is something that happens between two people and not between anyone else. Nobody else gets to vote on who you are attracted to. It isn't as if just, you know, only this certain type of person gets to fall in love.

ULABY: Rowell is not interested in writing about just the one type of beauty that gets so much play everywhere else. She also challenges the idea that when heroines meet their Mr. Right's, everything will be A-OK once they get married.

ROWELL: That's a fallacy because they are going to change and change and change and you are going to change and change and change. And it's so much more like agreeing to change next to each other than agreeing to love that person as they are on your wedding day.

ULABY: And there's where Rowell's real sense of subversion kicks in.

ROWELL: I like to write about the hard parts.

ULABY: The parts that in real romances come with the biggest and best payoffs. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.