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Review: Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff

Review: Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff, author of the bestselling young adult novel How I Live Now has penned her first book for adults about a young man whose love life is literally going to the dogs.

Buy Jonathan Unleashed for £13.99

Jonathan Trefoil has an apartment in Manhattan, a job as a copywriter and a girlfriend called Julie Cormorant, who appears to be “moving towards some abstract ideal of a thrusting young New Yorker.” There is a sense from the outset, however, that this is not the right life for him.

He finds the effort to appear like an adult exhausting: “Look how I work all the time. See my silky girlfriend. Watch me exchange money for food. Admire my blood pressure.”

The company he works for is “united in general agreement that everybody who worked there was young, attractive, fashionable, underpaid, exploited and full of existential rage. The work! The clients! The overall, devastating, crushing triviality of it all!”

Rosoff herself worked in advertising before writing her first book and she writes about the milieu, its absurd vocabulary and banality, with furious accuracy. She admitted to The Guardian that, “It took 12 years for the hate to compost down into comedy.” 

“Quips come easily to Rosoff but the strength of Jonathan Unleashed is not just in its spark and wit, the real power of the book lies in its understanding of love.”

Jonathan finds a form of deliverance in his relationship with his brother James’ two dogs, Sissy and Dante, who he is looking after whilst James is working in Dubai. Jonathan reflects that the “two dogs were like a readymade family, minus the rage.”

In many ways Jonathan is estranged from reality, and given to Walter Mitty-like fantasizing, which often proves as funny as it is disturbing.

He imagines a future for himself with Clémence, the French owner of his local bakery, which includes naming their three dream world children Celeste, Raoul and Alouette. This is unbeknownst to Clémence, who is married already, but Jonathan persists with the idea even after he becomes engaged to Julie.

If his ambivalence over his engagement is not already obvious, Jonathan repeatedly referring to his upcoming nuptials as his ‘funeral’ by mistake makes the point plain. This is just the beginning of the word disassociation that heralds a serious mental crisis. His inability to communicate effectively becomes both hilarious and moving.

Meg Rosoff
Image via Meg Rosoff

At one point, when Jonathan’s parents come to visit him, he deliriously visualises them as the squabbling Tom and Jerry. Rosoff bravely portrays the manic relish that forms a part of Jonathan’s breakdown.

Prior to this crescendo, we have been aware that Jonathan has been projecting some of his angst on to Sissy and Dante who he constantly takes to the vet, worried that “something’s missing from their lives”.

The dogs appear to provide a steer for Jonathan and they are responsible for at least one major plot twist though it is never quite clear what behavior is real, and what Jonathan projects onto them.

In many ways it doesn't matter and you certainly don't need to be a dog lover to enjoy Rosoff’s portrayal of this sheepdog and spaniel.

This is a filmic novel and has some of the makings of a New York-set romantic comedy. Quips come easily to Rosoff but the strength of Jonathan Unleashed is not just in its spark and wit; the real power of the book lies in its understanding of love.

This will not be a surprise to readers of Rosoff’s bestselling debut How I Live Now, in which adolescent cousins Daisy and Edmond fall painfully head over heels. 

In Jonathan Unleashed, even an ultimately doomed relationship can have a “strange magic”, and Rosoff describes a man about to fall in love as “calm, as if he’d been waiting for her to appear all along so that things could return to a kind of normal they’d never actually been.”

Listen to Meg Rosoff discussing Jonathan Unleashed in our February podcast: