What do a middle-aged, married volunteer firefighter on Long Island and a 21-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman from Far Rockaway who longs to be an actress have in common? The answer: an 18th-century man reincarnated as a fly, which may not clear things up immediately, but let novelist Rebecca Miller try.
In 18th-century France, Jacob Cerf leaves his traditional Judaism behind for a life integrated into the mainstream culture. The pawn in a bet to see if Jews can shed their “Jewishness” or if it is innate, Jacob succumbs to the pressures exerted on him and the temptations offered. He is happy to be rid of the juvenile and sickly wife to whom he is married and over time comes to pass as a Frenchman. But over 200 years later, he finds himself back in the world of observant Judaism again. This time, though, he is a fly.
"JACOB’S FOLLY is an absolute joy to read. It is smart, weird and funny, wry and magical, and Miller weaves the three stories together in interesting ways."
Miller’s debauched anti-hero in her latest novel, JACOB’S FOLLY, at first believes he is an angel, but comes to think of himself as a demon. In either case, his new life as an insect may have given him unrequested powers, and he intends to use them to destroy the lives of the two people to whose minds he has inexplicable access. The first mind belongs to a family man named Leslie Senzatimore (a name meaning “without fear”) who not only dreams of rescuing others but often actually does so either as a firefighter or as the hero of his needy family. The second mind belongs to Masha Edelman, the dreamy and beautiful Orthodox woman who is drawn to perform publicly, even though it is forbidden to her by religious law.
Jacob didn’t question his status as a Jew in France until his arranged marriage, and now Masha is on the verge of marriage herself, courted by the handsome and understanding Eli. But Jacob the fly wants to change the lives of both Masha and Leslie, forcing them to act out of character through his mental suggestions. With Masha he has her break small rules, and with Leslie he plants dreams of Masha in his head. When the two meet through a series of twisty coincidences, each sees in the other part of what they desire deep down. Yet, as each moves toward what he set in motion (Leslie’s infidelity and Masha’s abandonment of her religious code), Jacob feels less sure that any of it is what he wants. And complicating emotional matters is Jacob’s own memories that move toward the night of his early death.
JACOB’S FOLLY is an absolute joy to read. It is smart, weird and funny, wry and magical, and Miller weaves the three stories together in interesting ways. All three protagonists --- Jacob, Leslie and Masha --- are enchanting and frustrating personalities who struggle with the drive to perform and with faith or religion, love and ambition, and the lack thereof. The first part of the book, especially, is written with a unique, intelligent, charming and wickedly funny voice as Jacob finds himself in a new body, and in a new world, mixed up in the lives of Leslie and Masha. In the end, the strands of the novel come together in an almost too-neat but not totally unsurprising way, and two of the characters end up stealing the narrative show. While the discussion of the religiosity of the book’s Jews is rich and nuanced, knowledge of that religion or its history is not needed to enjoy the story because Miller is able to evoke feelings and situations with her command of language.
Though a novel about morals and choice, it is not a moralistic book. There is too much satire and comedy for that (even the more earnest coming-of-age tale of Masha seems satirical to an extent as it is paired with Leslie’s moral downfall, which is orchestrated by Jacob). In this way, Miller delicately balances a few types of narratives and archetypal characters, toying with them all the while. Not every question is answered in this ambitious novel, but due to Miller’s literary skill and obvious thrill in entertaining readers, it’s not necessary. JACOB’S FOLLY is wonderful and unforgettable.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 5, 2013