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The Book of Jonah    by Joshua Max Feldman order for
Book of Jonah
by Joshua Max Feldman
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Book of Jonah is a clever first novel by Joshua Max Feldman about a modern day version of the Biblical Jonah. Everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Jonah in the Bible knows that he is the man who is swallowed up by a whale when he tries to escape obeying a command issued by God.

Our modern Jonah Jacobstein is a young, up-and-coming Manhattan corporate lawyer with impressive degrees, who has worked long hours for his legal firm ever since acquiring the job right out of law school. His personal ethics leave something to be desired, since even though he is about to move in with his girlfriend of several years, Sylvia, he has found it impossible to break up completely with a former girlfriend, Zoey, with whom he has been alternately hooking up and breaking up for the past ten years. He feels guilty about cheating on Sylvia, a brilliant, successful business person whom he loves in spite of their tempestuous relationship. Sylvia is unaware of his relationship with Zoey, but Zoey knows all about Sylvia.

We meet Jonah at the peak of his career. He is assigned a case for one of his law firm's top clients, and realizes that a sterling performance in this particular case will result in his being promoted to partner. Becoming partner has been his ambition ever since he joined this firm, and he is thrilled at this opportunity. He also realizes, though, that his firm is going to be defending a client who has almost certainly broken the law and that if his firm succeeds in getting a successful judgment, the client will not only have won its case, but another, smaller company will be driven out of business. Even though this fact bothers his conscience for a short time, he decides that as a loyal employee, making ethical judgments of his superiors is less important than making partner.

God has other plans for Jonah. The message from God is amazing, a revelation to the reader as well as to Jonah, who has no doubt of its significance. Not a spiritual person at all or even particularly religious, Jonah knows where this vision has come from, but there's one big problem. He has no idea what it means or, if God wants him to do something, what that something might be. He sees Hebrew writing, but not having paid much attention to Hebrew lessons as a child, doesn't understand it. Poor Jonah flees in terror, tries to tell himself that maybe he was just so drunk that his mind wasn't working properly, and attempts to return to his normal life. There is a second vision, though, and after that he begins to try to do the right thing.

As I was reading this fascinating novel, I made notes of the chapter headings, which start with '1. The Presence of the Lord.' A second major character, Judith, is introduced in chapter two, but all the chapters about Jonah's predicament follow the Biblical story closely, hence, '3. But Jonah Set Out to Flee,' '4. A Mighty Storm Came Upon the Sea,' '5. The Ship Was in Danger of Breaking Up,' etc.. It's fun for the reader to try to predict how these chapter headings will advance the plot.

The organization of the plot around the Bible story turns the book into an interesting puzzle, and whether one believes in a higher power or not, the morality theme and Jonah's dilemma regarding what exactly is meant by good and bad in our modern world is timely, without being unpleasantly preachy. Watching someone struggling with moral values is certainly preferable to being told what moral values one should believe in.

Jonah's character is likeable and sympathetic. Judith is harder to decipher, and although one feels sympathetic to her plight, this reader tended to lose interest in her or even believe that she would have reacted the way she did to the terrible event that threw her life into chaos. I found the ending of the book to be appropriate for Jonah, but as unrealistic for Judith as was the rest of her life after the traumatic event that changed her. I enjoyed The Book of Jonah a great deal, though, and liking Jonah's character so much helped to make up for not caring for Judith.

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