Emma Donoghue’s attempt to capture the angst of a modern-day long-distance relationship immediately begs the question: can a novel set in the developed world in the age of instant messaging and cheaptickets.com deal with the theme of separated lovers with any conviction?
Jude is the curator of a museum in Ireland, Ontario; a town of six hundred with no unacquainted first names or unplumbed secrets. She is fervently content within the self-made confines of her life, relishing her small-town persona and her undemanding job. When her mother falls ill during a visit to England, though, Jude is forced to meet the wider world, and take her first ever plane trip to check on her mother’s health. The experience doesn’t augur well for her frequent flyer miles–the passenger in the adjacent seat seems ill, and towards the end of the flight, Jude realizes she has been sitting next to a corpse for several hours.
The chief purser on the flight, Síle (pronounced Sheila), takes pity on the shaken young Canadian girl; a post-flight cup of coffee seems the decent thing to offer. An unexpected attraction surfaces between the two, but neither expects much from their chance encounter. Síle is in a relationship, for one, and second-the Atlantic Ocean lies inconveniently between Dubliner Síle and Canadian Jude. They exchange addresses however, even as Jude confesses she’s a determined Luddite who doesn’t hold with mobile phones, and has never sent an email. Ta-da! that’s how Donoghue solves the pesky problem of technology ruining perfectly good separations.
The two begin a tentative correspondence, which rapidly shifts from friendly banter into breathless longing. Síle visits Ontario, where, besides finding love in Jude’s arms, she also finds every cliché about the Canadian winter to be brutally true. But the relationship seems destined to languish, for Donoghue ensures her pair are divided by much more than distance. Jude can’t imagine living anywhere else but her hometown; Síle is of mixed Indian-Irish parentage and can be at home only in a cosmopolitan world where her ethnicity and sexual choice are not remarked upon. There are generational differences too–Jude is twenty-five while Síle is forty, and Jude, for all her youth and small-town origins, has had many more sexual partners than the sophisticated Síle.
Romances featuring the attraction of opposites have been done to death; to fashion an engaging tale with the same old ingredients (lesbian romances are hardly novel anymore) is then a considerable achievement. Landing accomplishes the latter feat effortlessly however, by creating characters who are individually at least as absorbing as they are when together. Síle and Jude could easily be the subjects of separate novels; they spring off the page fully formed, pulling us into their orbit. Síle is an ordinary person who happens to be extraordinarily appealing–y’know, like your friend who picks you up at the airport on a snowy night, who doesn’t mind being the first to dance at your party, who can figure why your computer is suddenly eating up its desktop icons–nice without a whiff of saintliness. And Jude’s quirky, tough-girl persona is oddly attractive; we root for a happy ending for this pair.
As for the relationship–Donoghue keeps us guessing till the close as to whether the lovers unite or part forever. The only way the romance quotient in the novel could be improved is if a bar of Green and Black’s Maya Gold came free with every copy.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)