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Jacob's Folly

Rebecca Miller


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Paperback (2/25/2014)


A luminous novel-funny and moving in equal measure-that shines with the author's unique talents

"Jacob's Folly" is a rollicking, ingenious, saucy book, brimful of sparkling, unexpected characters, that takes on desire, faith, love, acting-and reincarnation.
In eighteenth-century Paris, Jacob Cerf is a Jew, a peddler of knives, saltcellars, and snuffboxes. Despite a disastrous teenage marriage, he is determined to raise himself up in life, by whatever means he can. More than two hundred years later, Jacob is amazed to find himself reincarnated as a fly in the Long Island suburbs of twenty-first-century America, his new life twisted in ways he could never have imagined. But even the tiniest of insects can influence the turning of the world, and thanks to his arrival, the lives of a reliable volunteer fireman and a young Orthodox Jewish woman nursing a secret ambition will never be the same.
Through the unique lens of Jacob's consciousness, Rebecca Miller explores change in all its different guises-personal, spiritual, literal. The hold of the past on the present, the power of private hopes and dreams, the collision of fate and free will: Miller's world-which is our own, transfigured by her clear gaze and by her sharp, surprising wit-comes brilliantly to life in the pages of this profoundly original novel.

Praise For Jacob's Folly

Praise for Jacob’s Folly:

“Bravura storytelling elevates this tale—narrated by a fly on the wall—from the merely fanciful to the fantastic . . . Miller has sent her characters on a daring odyssey that traverses history, religion, philosophy and cultural identity.” —Abigail Meisel, The New York Times Book Review

“Rebecca Miller has landed on a narrative voice that’s antique, droll, racy and occasionally cutting—imagine an 18th century French rake being played by David Niven . . . Delicately balanced . . . [Jacob’s] richly imagined life in Paris that makes the story delightful: details of ritual handwashing, his poisonously flatulent wife, a mystical cousin and a meticulous police officer overseeing the tiny Jewish population . . . Complex and ambitious . . . Delightful [and] bawdy.” —Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

“Thanks to Rebecca Miller’s densely detailed prose, such a transformation seems quite believable, propelling Jacob’s Folly on its own strange and often wonderful flight . . . Miller’s vivid writing captures both [Jacob and Masha’s] worldviews with a wit and restraint that underlines their essential differences, as well as their similarities . . . Stylish and lively . . . Engrossing.” —Clea Simon, Boston Globe

"In Rebecca Miller's enjoyably oddball novel Jacob’s Folly, the 18th-century Frenchman Jacob Cerf has been reincarnated as a housefly in present-day Long Island . . . Jacob's Folly is lively and unpredictable, but its antic humor disguises what is at heart a chastening cautionary tale." —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“At bottom, then, Jacob’s Folly is about that most elemental of contests: the struggle between good and evil, between the ultimate reward that awaits those who obey the rules and the temporal pleasures of letting one’s freak flag fly. Miller dynamically conjures up one elaborate story and substory after another, all speaking to this cosmic tug of war. Jacob, of course, whizzes about trying to overturn divine order and stir up chaos. In the tradition of the best literary demons from Milton’s Satan on down, he’s more fiendishly funny than the goody-goodies who are struggling against temptation . . . Miller’s writing style is sensuous, and her individual stories expand, opulently, in scope and emotional impact . . . [A] rich novel about the rewards and terrors of transformation.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“Rebecca Miller's graceful, ambitious novel spans time and geography and juggles several enmeshed narrative threads nimbly. She creates memorable characters with dark wit, lyrical prose and a propulsive storytelling rhythm . . . More than anything, she has a superb ability to turn a phrase. Jacob's Folly is an ingenious, meticulously observed, profoundly absorbing and deeply satisfying read.” Claudia Puig, USA Today

“[An] ambitious, absorbing novel . . . Narratively speaking, it’s a remarkable feat how the author/filmmaker agilely threads through three distinct narratives . . . Jacob’s Folly is a rare book from a rare breed of artist.”  —S. Kirk Walsh, Kirkus (starred review)

“Marvelous, deep, rich, sexy, transgressive, terrifying, tough, and very, very funny—a great ingathering as multifaceted as a gem, or the eye of a fly!” —Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America

“Rebecca Miller . . . is a writer whose graceful and original language makes the challenge of Jacob's Folly a rewarding one. Her literary sensibility is vast.” —Katharine Webber, Moment

“Having died at age 31 in 1773 Paris, Jacob Cerf thinks he’s been turned into an angel when he first “wakes up” hovering above Leslie Senzatimore in front of his Long Island home. But Jacob is no angel, although his supernatural powers include reading thoughts, traveling through others’ memories and perhaps implanting ideas. He quickly understands Leslie, who has coped with his life’s traumas, including his father’s suicide and his son’s deafness, by becoming a gentile mensch. The volunteer firefighter is a devoted husband and father who supports his extended family of losers even when his boat repair business is struggling through the recession. Leslie’s genuine goodness reminds Jacob of his father, an observant Jewish peddler unhappy at Jacob’s lack of interest in Torah, so Jacob wants to topple Leslie from his pedestal of righteousness. Accompanying Leslie on a hospital visit, Jacob wanders off and lands (literally) in the room of Masha, a lovely 21-year-old Orthodox Jew with heart problems and a secret desire to become an actress (theater is a leitmotif throughout). Falling for Masha, the first Jewish woman he ever loved, Jacob decides to enhance her opportunities by separating her from her family’s religious Orthodoxy. He travels between Masha and Leslie planting ideas within their brains until their fates intersect. Meanwhile, Jacob tells his own story: his disastrous arranged marriage, his flirtation with Hasidism, his desertion of his Jewish identity to become the valet of a libertine count, his sexual escapades. The three characters live in different genres: Jacob a comical, absurdist picaresque, Leslie a domestic tragedy and Masha a bittersweet coming-of-age melodrama. Yet the parallels, particularly between Masha and Jacob, are unmistakable. Miller forces readers to consider the dangers along with the values of assimilation and pits moral choice against fate.

A challenging read, yet remarkably entertaining and ultimately gripping.” —Kirkus (starred)

“Miller embeds readers in the outsized consciousness of a fly, the modern reincarnation of Jacob, a Jewish peddler taken from eighteenth-century Paris and stripped of his identity. Via an enigmatic capacity to enter minds, the fly encourages young, Orthodox Masha’s forbidden stage aspirations while simultaneously inciting a botched bid to ‘rescue’ her. Because of consistent narration, Miller’s intricate plots are never confusing. Rather, they are foils across time and space, offering measurements of survival, belonging, inheritance, the cost of transformation—whether coerced or voluntary—and outcome’s overpowering of intention. Jacob acts undetected by his targets, but a far more inscrutable figure reveals his role in the satisfying conclusion. The novel breathes sensuality, creating sounds of languages mixing in dusty streets, the feeling of being bareheaded, without yarmulke, for the first time, and even an orange’s distinctive smell. Readers will chuckle contentedly and without malice at a violent, life-affirming death. A deeply pleasurable, darkly comic, and original reinterpretation of Jewish history’s ‘indestructible storyline,’ alighting thoughtfully on forces both individual and collective, internal and external, from genocide to assimilation.” —Cynthia-Marie O’Brien, Booklist (starred)

“Scads of narrative threads are sewn together with impressive and often lovely wordplay to form a vast historical fabric of Jacob’s Jewish family. Miller . . . is so clever when dwelling in the mind and body of that insect that the reader is rarely exasperated. An unusual and absorbing read.” —Publishers Weekly

Praise for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

“Miller is a luminous writer and the visual impact of her sentences carry something of the cool impersonality of an Edward Hopper painting.” —The Observer

Farrar Straus Giroux, 9780374178543, 371pp.

Publication Date: March 5, 2013

About the Author

Rebecca Miller is the author of the short-story collection "Personal Velocity," her feature-film adaptation of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" (FSG, 2008), which she also adapted for the screen. Her other films include "Angela" and "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." She lives in New York and Ireland with her family.

Conversation Starters from

Discuss Jacob’s storytelling style. How does he create a tragicomic tone? Which passages moved you the most? When did you find yourself laughing inappropriately?

Jacob and Masha face difficult decisions about whether to follow religious tradition. Do their family legacies empower them or hinder them? Would you have turned down Monsieur le Comte’s job offer? Would you have said yes to eli’s marriage proposal?

Discuss Hodel’s transformation. In the novel, is sexuality something to be savored, or does it spell doom?

How does Leslie relate to his older sister? Does Masha have much in common with Deirdre and the other women in Leslie’s life? What makes him well suited to his job as a rescuer?

Visiting from Poland, Gimpel claims that Jacob has become too much like the french. What does it cost Jacob to assimilate, leaving behind even his name? What does it cost Gimpel to be himself? By the end of Jacob’s life in france, has he abandoned or discovered his true self?

What do Masha’s roles onstage, which place her in a world that is so different from her own, mean to her? What role does she have to play in her negotiations with Nevsky? How does Jacob’s skill as an actor in daily life prepare him for a career onstage?

Ultimately, does Hugh lead Masha to a better life, “healing” her in a way? What was at the heart of Pearl’s fears?

What historical details did you discover about eighteenth-century france by reading Jacob’s tale? How does his anti-Semitic world compare to Masha’s New York?

What does Antonia’s story illuminate about class, leverage, and survival as Jacob tries to find security?

Shortly after Jacob’s awkward Good friday experience, the count says that he is naming the pyramid “Jacob’s folly” to commemorate the Jews’ liberation from Egypt and one of their heroes. Discuss the many ironies of the building’s name (and the novel’s title).

In chapter 42, Max’s story serves as a bridge between the old World and the United States. Is this a novel in which history repeats itself, or do the characters become masters of reinvention?

What do you predict for Jacob? Will his final prayer be answered? How have his experiences affected his relationship with God?

Discuss the book in comparison to Rebecca Miller’s previous novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Do Pippa, Masha, and Jacob speak to any common themes about fate and risk?

If you could be a fly on the wall of a family three hundred years from now, what would you hope to see? What type of family would you want to set up housekeeping with?