Book Review: Attachments

Book Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Attachments is a love story, albeit one that’s a bit outside the usual boy-meets-girl mold. In this version of 20th century love, boy doesn’t meet girl, exactly — he snoops through her email files instead.

Lincoln is a midwestern loner in his late twenties, so badly burned by getting dumped by his first love during their freshman year of college that he’s just never tried again. Lincoln lives with his mom, works the graveyard shift in the IT department of a newspaper, and has a social life that consists primarily of Saturday night Dungeons & Dragons sessions. When Lincoln is assigned to work internet security, his job mainly entails reviewing emails flagged for violating company policy and sending warning memos to the offenders. But mostly, he sits around with not much to do, killing time in his lonely workspace and having dinner in the break room with Doris, the 60-something-year-old vending machine lady — who, incidentally, has a better love life than Lincoln does.

But as soon as Lincoln reads the first flagged email between Beth, a movie reviewer, and Jennifer, a copy editor, he’s captivated. He knows he should warn them and move on, but instead, he gets caught up in their daily chit-chat, their ruminations on life, their ongoing relationship woes, and most of all, their easy yet deep friendship. At some point, there’s no return: There’s no way for Lincoln to suddenly tell them to stop sending personal emails without revealing that he’s been reading their emails for months, and so it goes on. On the one hand, Lincoln gets more and more deeply involved and begins to really fall for Beth — but on the other hand, Lincoln starts to really despise himself for what he can no longer consider anything but creepy snooping.

There are surprises in store. We hear about Lincoln only from his own perspective, and he really does not think well of himself. So when Beth starts emailing Jennifer about the cute guy at work, it takes a few beats to realize that they’re discussing Lincoln. Wait, he’s cute? He’s big and handsome, kind of like the Brawny paper towel guy? You’d never know it, considering how little Lincoln thinks of himself.

Beth’s got self-image issues too. She’s been involved with a gorgeous guitar player for years — but most of the time, he barely knows she’s there. She wants to get married, but mostly he just wants to perform and listen to music. Beth’s sisters are married, her friends seem to all be married or on their way to the altar, she thinks her upper arms are hideous, and she has a sad collection of bridesmaids dresses that taunt her from the closet.

This is, ultimately, a very romantic book, and so it’s clear early on that Beth and Lincoln are destined to finally connect. How they get there and what they go through is where all the fun lies. Attachments is a quick, quirky read. The Beth-and-Jennifer parts of the story are told via their emails, and really, these two women are people you’d just love to hang out with. They’re funny, they’re snarky, and they’re really there for each other, with an honesty that only best friends can truly afford. Lincoln’s chapters are the meat of the book, and their narrative flow is both sad and humorous. You can’t help but root for Lincoln as he takes baby steps toward manning up and moving forward — look, he went out to a bar! Look, he arranged a weekend outing! Look, he started going to the gym and bought some new clothes!

Attachments starts out in late 1999, with the world starting to seriously worry about Y2K and whether technology will grind to a halt. There ‘s a charm to the millenial internet jargon, the coding frenzies, the gradual introduction of email privacy (or lack thereof). This book was written in 2011, and I’m not entirely sure that I think the nostalgic look back at 1999/2000 is really necessary to the storyline — although I suppose things couldn’t happen this way today, with our firewalls, spam filters, and tech-savvy social media obsessions. There’s a certain sweet innocence to the emails between Beth and Jennifer, blithely talking about their personal lives with no thoughts about anyone reading their words, forwarding their emails, or posting embarrassing quotes on their Facebook walls.

Office settings are rare in contemporary fiction as anything but backdrop — the places the main characters go when they’re not on stage in their homes or other more action-packed or glamorous settings. In Attachments, the office is a bit of a social melting pot, where Lincoln is finally dragged out of his cocoon and forced to acknowledge himself as a person who needs and wants other people.

I decided to read Attachments after reading Eleanor & Park, the new (and amazing) young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell. I loved the author’s voice and approach to her characters so much that I decided to seek out anything else she’d written, and as it turned out, Attachments was her first and only other novel. If not for Eleanor & Park, I doubt I would have come across Attachments… but I’m so glad that I did.

Attachments is sweet, romantic, funny, and warm-hearted, and surprised me by being much more affecting than I’d anticipated. It’s a great love story, well-suited to a lonely world in which people connect best via their devices and screens. At its heart, Attachments is about real, live, human connection — how rare it is to find it, and how special it can be. Check it out! It’s a quick, satisfying read that’ll leave you with a smile on your face.

Rainbow Rowell has a new book, Fangirl, due out in the fall. You can bet I’ll read it!

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