Meg Rosoff (Bloomsbury 2016, Hardcover) 276 pages, £14.99 cover price
Let's start off with a game. You and I have decided to watch a romantic comedy tonight, a rom-com. I know how the plot turns out because I've never met a spoiler I haven't liked. That by the way is true and it's saved me from thousands of hours of boredom. However, in terms of our game, I'm going to give you a basic plot element and you tell me which is the likeliest outcome from three possibilities. Sound like fun? Let's start! There are just three questions in all.
- A harried schlep of a hero has a beautiful fiancée with a rising career. Over the course of the next two hours she will prove to be:a) A supportive helpmate to her husband-to-be.b) A well-rounded woman with her own hopes and needs.c) A selfish bitch.
- The harried schlep works at a dull job at an ad agency writing bland copy for an office supply company. Eventually he will:a) Become a rising star, the new Don Draper!b) Just keep on doing what he does because that's what people do.c) Make a mad change and fall into a new career with self-fulfillmentand quite the view from a cabin in the woods.
- Harried schlep has to take care of his brother's two dogs for six months. The dogs in turn will:a) Lead him to 'meet cute' the woman he should be with.b) With sublime passive-aggressive behaviour, contribute to the endof his present relationship.c) Chomp someone who deserves chomping. No great injuriesthough, as this is a rom-com, not Cujo.
The answers are c, c, and yes. If you missed any of them, might I ask how it is that you've managed to dodge the rom-com bullet for all these years? You certainly aren't a member of the Stone Cutters because you certainly didn't make Steve Guttenberg a star. Or Jennifer Aniston. Or Adam Sandler. Or Robert De Niro's post-Scorcese canon of Not Giving Two Shits movies.
Jonathan Unleashed is a script treatment disguised as a novel and I'm sure that when the cameras roll – and honey, they are definitely going to roll – it will find that rom-com sweet spot. Couples will date, popcorn will pop, it will last in the Top Ten for four weeks, some people will list it as a guilty pleasure for the rest of their lives, but your last Snapchat video has a better chance at an Oscar.
So am I damning this novel? Not in the slightest; I did an interview a week or so ago with Bob Van Laerhoven, who is a very serious Belgian writer, and we got onto the topic of literature versus 'screenplay novels.' I stick by what I said at the time. Writing is a goddam tough business and I don't begrudge anyone who manages to make a living out of it. Bob agreed insofar as we can't quarrel with anyone who reads anything, as at least they're reading.
I wish Meg Rosoff hadn't telegraphed some of her punches, or punchlines quite so obviously. As soon as I saw that Jonathan (the harried schlep) had a fiancée named Julie Cormorant it was inevitable that ... yes, here it is on page 75: 'Beside him, Julie Cormorant slumbered silently, her hair spread across the pillow like the feathers of a beautiful dark bird.' By the way, is there a more rom-com name anywhere than Julie? I feel sorry for real women named Julie. They must be fed up by now with waiters who compulsively spill drinks on them and cab drivers who surf through puddles just to soak their new dresses.
It real is all good fun, although I do have one rather serious complaint. The two dogs Jonathan minds are a cocker spaniel named Sissy and a border collie named Dante. I have owned two dogs in my life ... a cocker spaniel and at present a border collie. Rosoff misses their breed personalities by a mile, choosing to give Sissy all the loving and affectionate business (well, really all she does is rest her head on Jonathan's knee during any stressful moment, but hey let's go with it) and Dante is all aloof wisdom. No, no, and in case you missed that the first two times, no. Cockers do affection, certainly, but they also do mischief. Border collies, aka border dollys, are enormously affectionate and – unlike Dante – they are about as subtle in expressing themselves as a shovel to the head. If a real-life Dante felt a Julie was unsuitable, trust me darling he'd make his feelings known in clear and unmistakable language.
It really does always boil down to the question of, 'Well did you like the book or not?' Of course I liked it. Jonathan Unleashed is a comfortable and pleasant read. It's the book equivalent of spaghetti with that bottled brand of bolognese that suits your palette just so. Dog lovers will, I think, like this novel on reflex just because it features two dogs. I do believe they will enjoy Mike Robbins novella Dog! (reviewed earlier) much more, but to each his own. And lastly there's this – if you read the book now you can avoid the movie later as you can say with an absolute straight face, 'Oh darn, I've seen that one before.'
Be seeing you.