In Emma Donoghue’s fifth novel, Landing, “Love isn’t a problem, geography is.” So says Jude Turner, a twenty-five year old museum curator who has spent her entire life in the small town of Ireland, Ontario, population six hundred. The love she’s referring to is Sile O’Shuanessey, a thirty-nine year old flight attendant whose roots are in Dublin, Ireland. After meeting on a trans-Atlantic flight neither woman can get the other out of her head, and they start up a flirty correspondence that slowly blooms into full blown love.
Jude and Sile appear to be total opposites. Jude is young, androgynous, loathes technology, adores small town life, and has a great respect for history. Sile is older, feminine, tech-savvy, well traveled, and loves urban living. But scratch the surface and you find both women are stuck in ruts dug by the repetitious natures of their respective lifestyles. Jude finds herself hanging around with the same people she did in high school, engaging in the same activities day in and day out, while Sile spends her days stuck in an airplane dealing with the same moody passengers flight after flight. It’s the stone of their long-distance relationship that disrupts their routines, sending ripples through every aspect of their lives.
The long distance relationship itself isn’t just the cause of each woman’s internal struggle, but an external depiction of it. It allows both women the emotional benefits of commitment without any of the inconveniences. There’s no fighting over where to eat dinner Friday night; no having to play referee to the lover and best friend who can’t stand each other. Both Jude and Sile are able to continue living their lives without significant interruption. But as their relationship turns serious, Jude and Sile begin to view the arrangement in a negative light. When the two meet up in New York for a weekend together, rather than look forward to the three days they have with each other, each sunrise and sunset only reminds them that they will have to part again. On page 196 Sile’s best friend Jael observes that the long distance relationship “Sounds like all the hassle of being in a couple, and none of the pleasure.” Still stubbornly attached to their home towns, however, neither Sile nor Jude is willing to make any compromise that will require major change in their lives. When the strain of maintaining separate lives becomes to much for the relationship to bear Jude and Sile must decide whether to remain chained to the past and rooted in routine, or to risk taking flight and seeing where their relationship lands.
I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue, and as with all of my favorite authors, she consistently produces work that is rich in themes worthy of examination. One could write a critical essay on the how the arbitrary constructs of “time” and “place” work in the novel. Or ask what is it that physically and emotionally anchors us to specific locations? Donoghue returns to the idea of taking flight and eventually landing throughout the novel, and how the two seemingly opposing actions often overlap and mimic each other.
While it would have been easy for Sile and Jude to come across as cliches, the consummate city mouse and country mouse, Donoghue gives them depth and individuality. Jude has a strong sense of self that allows her to be open about her fluid sexuality even in a town where everyone knows everyone elses business, and Sile is incredibly kind and nurturing despite a fast paced jet-setter lifestyle that often forces her to deal with highly demanding individuals. The women have enough in common that it’s easy to understand why they like each other, and are in just enough disagreement for the reader to understand what is keeping them apart.
Falling in love is like taking to the air. There’s the soaring, butterflies in the stomach feel of the honeymoon period that must eventually give way to the apprehensive, stomach-in-your-throat feeling brought on by the realization that what goes up must come down. With her trademark compassion and sensitivity, Donoghue has crafted a satisfying read about the risks of falling and the rewards of landing.