On Saturday, I set out a list of reading resolutions for the year. As usual, one of the majors ones was to buy fewer books. This is something I try and fail to keep every year. The publishing industry just can’t stop bringing out more fantastic books. However, I do intend to do better this year because I’m painfully aware that I have something of storage problem. In order to stop myself from buying new books, I have set myself a second resolution of actually reading the books on my shelves. I have that classic bookish problem of having owned books for years. This is especially true of my Kindle. I tend to buy cheap ebooks on a whim and then forget about them. According to Amazon, I bought Jonathan Unleashed in December 2016. That means I’ve owned it for 4 years. It feels as though it was time to finally give it a chance.
I’ve not read anything by Meg Rosoff before but I was interested in trying this one. It didn’t sound like your average romance and the dog concept sounded intriguing. Jonathan Unleashed was Rosoff’s first novel written for an adult audience but, as with her previous work, dogs were a major theme. Jonathan Trefoil was leading a pretty unassuming life until his brother asked him to dog sit. Suddenly, Jonathan’s tiny New York apartment became home to a border collie and a spaniel. A border collie and a spaniel who certainly make their presence known. Jonathan quickly forms a bond with the dogs and worries about their behaviour. With his professional and romantic life being so complicated, the last thing than Jonathan needs is a pair of unhappy dogs. Can he work out what the two are up to and what they want from him?
This is the kind of premise that has so much potential. Potential that can be seen in the novel’s opening lines. “Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him. They weren’t even his dogs.” I was hooked by these sentences. Jonathan lives in a one-bedroom apartment that he is subletting from a dodgy character. When he moves in, he is told that he could be turfed out any moment depending on when the previous occupant is released from prison. His brother has recently moved to Dubai for 6 months and didn’t leave Jonathan much of choice about taking them in. From that moment on, the dogs become a haunting presence in Jonathan’s life. He gives them individual personalities and believes that they are judging him.
It’s quite common for owners to anthropomorphise their pets and Rosoff certainly understands the mind of a dog owner. The border collie, Dante, is an independent and intelligent figure. He is dominant and slips into an obvious leadership role. The spaniel, Sissy, is sweet and loving. She has the kind of eyes that can melt even the hardest heart and she is always ready to put her head on a tortured knee. Rosoff really brings these creatures to life and makes Jonathan’s assessment of the pair seem perfectly natural. Of course, it helps that the dogs have a point about his life. Anyone who was paying any kind of attention would see that Jonathan was struggling. He works in the first dead-end job that he could find and is in a relationship with a woman he doesn’t see a future with. Far from living life to the full, Jonathan is simply going from one day to the next.
It is only once he takes possession of the dogs that Jonathan finds any kind of purpose in his life. He has a reason to live and two dependents to look after. The trio becomes quite adorable together, and I’d have been happy if the narrative had just focused around them. Jonathan worries that his brother will come back and demand his pets back. The dogs are worried about Jonathan’s well-being and attempt to guide him to a better path. When his girlfriend moves to the city, it is clear that the pair are in different places. Jonathan imagines a future with every new woman he meets, and Julie wants them to get married for a feature in the magazine she works for. It’s no wonder that the dogs don’t really warm to her.
Reading this book, it isn’t a surprise that Rosoff had previously only written for a younger audience. Jonathan may be a grown-up but there is a lack of maturity throughout. He is obsessed with cartoons and spends most of his time living in a fantasy world. There is something of a disconnect between reality and the events in this book. It all reads like a teen movie. Everything is so simple and kind of like a fairytale. In fact, the idea of the fairytale ending is a problem here. What starts off as a quirky and promising look at adulthood and the problems associated with it. Jonathan still hasn’t quite made the transition from boyhood to manhood and finds adult life quite perplexing. He is pretty unhappy with the conventions of being a man, which is probably why he favours the company of dogs. There are so many fantastic ways that this book could have gone but, instead, we end up with a fairly dull romantic comedy. Any originality is replaced with sentimentality and cliché. It’s a real shame.