I received The Book of Jonah as a review copy through LibraryThing.
The first half of this book I thought was fantastic. So often when a novel is set in New York City, I feel like the author is just name-dropping, trying to seem cool by showing off-hand knowledge of street names and neighborhood spots. Feldman writes about New York City in a much more pleasant and realistic way. It’s a real, three-dimensional place in The Book of Jonah. I’ve only spent a few days in New York City several years before the main character moved there, but through Feldman’s writing, I felt I could really see both the good and the bad of the city. Jonah’s love for and ambivalence about New York came through in Feldman’s descriptions.
Feldman also did an incredible job setting up Jonah as an unlikely prophet. Jonah’s visions are as believable as his efforts to evade them, and I found myself being sucked into the story of his continual missteps. Jonah comes through by the skin of his teeth so many times just to screw everything up again; I spent a fair amount of the first half cringing on Jonah’s behalf. Poor Jonah’s suffering is definitely biblical in its proportions. He’s a man hanging on by a thread, and I was never 100% sure whether I wanted to root for him to succeed at what he was trying to do or to fail and perhaps become a better person for it.
I always worry that I give glowing reviews to too many of the review copies I read. I worry the appearance that I like almost everything might damage my credibility as a reviewer (not that I work very hard to be professional in my reviews anyway, I guess, but I like being credible). So I felt reassured when I started feeling a little less enthusiastic about the book at the end of Part I.
It was at this point that I began noticing more—and being more annoyed by—Feldman’s writerly idiosyncrasies. Like his enthusiastic use of em-dashes. I myself am partial to em-dashes, but I found myself wishing he’d vary the punctuation a little, trade out some of the em-dashes for commas, or semi-colons; even a colon would have been welcome. I don’t think this distracted me from the writing, but rather I think I noticed the punctuation because the writing became less rich and engaging in the second half of the book.
In the second half, Feldman started using a lot more internal dialogue. Characters asked themselves rhetorical questions and mused about their situations in the first half, but they seemed to do it more in the second half. I felt like Feldman was just writing out the interpretation he wanted readers to have of the book up to that point, rather than letting it be ambiguous and letting us figure it out for ourselves.
I also found the few days of journal entries at the beginning of Part II a little strange. So Judith presumably never kept a journal, or at least there was no mention of a journal before this point, but she buys a Moleskine and journals in great detail for several days then just stops? I didn’t quite buy it. Maybe if it had been a device used throughout the book (she’s always stopping and staring journals or she’s always journaled and we’re just seeing journal from select periods), or if the journal entries had a more distinctive “Judith” voice to them, it would have worked better for me.
In general, though, I found Judith’s storyline to be weaker than Jonah’s. Without giving away spoiler details, while the buildup to the turning point in her life was masterful, I found the direction Judith’s life took after that a little implausible. She met with some pretty intriguing characters that just didn’t seem realistic to me. And the intermeshing of Jonah’s and Judith’s lives felt a little contrived. I can accept the similarities in their young lives, but I don’t know…the arrangement that they each end up with enough disposable income to do pretty much whatever they want didn’t ring true to me. If they were the only ones, I might accept it as coincidence, but there are also minor characters who are in the same situation. Maybe I’ve not spent enough time with wealthy people, but does this sort of thing happen often? People having money to fly anywhere in the world for no particular reason? Or maybe it doesn’t happen often, but people with money just find each other wherever they go, like how I meet Ohioans at parties in California, in restaurants in Florida, and even under Delicate Arch in Utah?
Overall, I enjoyed the book, but the first half was stronger than the second half. I kind of wish it had continued to be a little more vague, more biblical in the second half. But maybe moving into doubt and into the mundane was the point. What does the prophet do when God stops speaking to him? Life goes on.
While I was left wanting at the end of this novel, I would definitely read more of Feldman’s writing. The first half of this novel was excellent, and I would read another novel of his based on the promise of writing like that.