Jacob's Folly: A Novel

( 10 )

Overview

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...

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Jacob's Folly: A Novel

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Abigail Meisel
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.
Publishers Weekly
Suspending disbelief is the biggest challenge of Miller’s audacious new novel, not least because the Jacob of the title is a Jewish peddler from late 18th-century Paris who has been reincarnated on Long Island in the 21st… as a fly. Jacob the fly becomes a kind of demon to a melancholy volunteer firefighter named Leslie and a lovely but conflicted Jewish actress named Masha. When Jacob realizes he can discern their dreams and influence their actions he determines to change their fates. The narrative buzzes back and forth through time, chronicling Jacob’s shedding of his Jewish identity to become valet to the comte de Villars and, in time, an actor in the Comédie-Française, while keeping the reader abreast of the unraveling lives of Leslie and Masha. 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 (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) almost takes the to and fro trajectories too far, but she is so clever when dwelling in the mind and body of that insect that the reader is rarely exasperated. An unusual and absorbing read. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
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

Library Journal
The main character of author and filmmaker Miller's (Personal Velocity; The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) imaginative new novel is an 18th-century Jewish peddler reincarnated as a fly on contemporary Long Island, NY. At first devastated to discover that he is not an angel, as he first presumed, Jacob Cerf nonetheless exerts a mysterious influence on two individuals: Leslie Senzatimore, a saintly boat remodeler, and Masha, a young Orthodox Jewish woman. Jacob feels compelled to pull Masha away from her religion and to knock Leslie off his do-gooder pedestal. The book juggles the stories of Masha and Leslie, who eventually meet, along with Jacob's travails from a few hundred years earlier. All three stories fascinate, especially the rules of ultra-Orthodoxy, which provide both comfort and restriction. The early part of the novel offers dazzling insights into life from a fly's perspective, though disappointingly that aspect of the book quickly dissipates. The lives of the main characters depict the complexity of exploration in faith and free will that makes for a deeply involving story. VERDICT Highly recommended for fans of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, whose time-traveling main character offered similar insights into fate and freedom. [See Prepub Alert, 10/1/12.]—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Kirkus Reviews
A hugely ambitious, wildly imaginative novel by Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, 2008, etc.) about a dead 18th-century French Jew brought back to life as a fly in 21st-century America. 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250043603
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 2/25/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 461,621
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

Jacob's Folly

A Novel
By Rebecca Miller

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374178543

1
 

I, the being in question, having spent nearly three hundred years lost as a pomegranate pip in a lake of aspic, amnesiac, bodiless, and comatose, a nugget of spirit but nothing else, found myself quickening, gaining form, weight, and, finally, consciousness. I did not remember dying, so my first thoughts were confused, and a little desperate.
As the blinding layer of black cloud I was enshrouded in dissipated, I saw the moon: opalescent, crater-pocked, impassive; frighteningly close. Indifferent stars carved up the firmament with their dazzling, ancient patterns. There was an echoing sound, like huge air bubbles escaping flatulently from an enormous wide-mouthed bottle underwater in a Turkish bath with a domed roof, but there was also a tearing—a continuous ripping, as if a universe-sized sheet of canvas were being torn asunder. I now know this was the fabric of time. I felt intensely alone and cried out, but my shriek sounded submerged. Instinctively, I beat the wings I didn’t know I had, and rose. I could fly! Was I dreaming? The black air was surprisingly viscous. My wings outstretched, I let myself descend, circling slowly through the thick stuff, passing through roiling, wispy clouds that felt cool on my skin. I was definitely awake. Could I be an angel? Euphoria and disbelief gathered in me. I reveled at having been chosen, against all odds, to be part of the heavenly host. I yearned to admire myself—or better, to be admired. I knew I must be very beautiful. I flapped my wings, spreading them wide, banking, making a slow round, wending my way down through the night. Below me, a web of lights, like a spume of stars, spilled out into a great darkness. As I neared, I saw the blackness churning, cresting: the sea. I was looking down on the earth! But what were all those lights?
Descending more rapidly as old rosy-fingers passed her bright hand over the ocean, washing it with light, I could now make out a crust of houses, built up on the twinkling island below like a skin malady. The massive grid of roofs rose to meet me vertiginously.
Swirling through the atmosphere, I had no idea where I was, but I knew I’d been gone a long time. Smooth-hipped, humpish carriages gleamed at the doors of the toylike dwellings; streetlamps spilled pools of steady light on ruled streets as smooth as stretched toffee: it was the future, I knew it. The last tool of illumination I had seen was a porcelain candelabrum beside my bed in Paris, in 1773. It was encrusted with light green leaves, tiny pink roses, and cherubim.
Still in the meat of my youth, I lay shivering with fever, my chest tight, sweat trickling down my sides. Now and then Solange would look in on me, the silk of her dress whispering as she moved about the room, replacing my water jug or plumping my pillow. Her gardenia perfume was too pungent for my strangled breath and I turned away as she leaned over me, yet I never took my eyes from the candelabrum. I found it a little garish—but what did I know? I was an ex-peddler, born in a tenement. I was lucky to even be next to this six-branched, delicately fluted masterpiece with twelve naked winged babies crawling over its glazed surface. Cascades of hardened beeswax spilled from each candle and all along the porcelain base, mingling with the cupids and tangling with the roses—the result of a week-long bacchanal, my meager staff too exhausted from entertaining the guests to scrape wax off candlesticks in the morning.
I watched, fascinated, my eyes dry, breath short, as each drip was formed: at the base of the flame, a little pool of molten wax glistened, plump as a tear on the rim of a woman’s eye; when the pool grew too great, it breached the worn edge of the candle, trickling freely along the shaft and finding its crooked path down the petrified waterfall. Moving farther and farther away from the source of heat, the cooling wax became hesitant, cloudy, until it froze entirely, fusing itself to the spillage.
I stared at the wax dripping down the candles for hours and hours, until, at dawn, I died. Sunday, the seventh of February, 1773. I was thirty-one. After that, nothing. And now I was an angel! I imagined myself as a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautiful chiseled torso, hairless feet, and eyes the color of whiskey. When I was alive, I was dark haired, short, slight, with light eyes, strong teeth, and a thick, long sex that I scented and coiled inside my britches daily with great care and pride, an aspect of my physicality which I hoped had been duplicated by the Almighty; but whenever I tried to look down at myself I could not move my neck, and my arms felt very weak. I assumed this stiffness was due to the long period of being dead.
Something amazing had happened to my sight: it was as if the top of my head had been removed and replaced with an enormous eye. I could see jagged purple clouds drifting above me, the streets stretching away at either side, and the houses below. This is how angels see, I marveled.
I noticed a gigantic figure stride out of one of the shiny carriages. Trying to focus on him and ignore the rest of the nearly 360-degree view, I descended cautiously, not yet in full command of my wings, afraid that the man might see me, yet half hoping he would. The thought of bringing this Titan to his knees with astonishment and awe was attractive to me. I imagined myself as an angel in a painting, my chiton frozen mid-billow as I reached my delicate hands out expressively, the object of my communication falling to the ground with awe and wonder, his eyes rolling up in his head.
Yet, as I hovered above him, I had an alarming double vision: I saw the man, and I knew him.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Rebecca Miller


Continues...

Excerpted from Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller Copyright © 2013 by Rebecca Miller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

An ingenious novel of love, faith, and reincarnation, Jacob’s Folly weaves three storylines to create a rollicking tale in which the past reverberates into the present. At the heart of the novel are Jacob, a Jewish peddler living in eighteenth-century France; Leslie, a Long Island volunteer firefighter; and Masha, an alluring young Ultraorthodox Jew who aspires to become an actress. In Rebecca Miller’s inventive second novel, the fates of these individuals intertwine when Jacob finds himself reincarnated as a fly in contemporary New York. Showcasing Miller’s quirky humor and keen eye, Jacob’s Folly traces the characters’ multifaceted transformations: personal, spiritual, and literal. As Miller considers the collision of fate and free will, her world becomes a place of matchmakers and gamblers, vagabonds and heroes, all united in the pursuit of unrealized dreams.

We hope that the following discussion topics will enhance your reading group’s experience of this funny, luminous, and deeply moving novel.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 10 )
Rating Distribution

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(4)

4 Star

(1)

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Nadia

    Okay i need u to get him in 10 mins or when i get u

    1 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2013

    Roza

    You here?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2013

    Highly recommended- you must check it out

    Very interesting book--many twists and turns that were unexpected. We just had a book club review this book. We all felt that the character Leslie was not believable and did not come through very well. But Jacob was very interesting. We liked his adventures and couldn't wait to find out how it all came together!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 10, 2013

    Fun read!

    I thoroughly enjoyed Rebecca Miller's newest book. Fun read to sink into and escape reality!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2013

    Hasidic Jewish story primarily that spans back and forth between two periods in time.

    The story might be very interesting to someone with more knowledge of Hasidic Judism than I have. It is situated from a fly's eye view (literally) of what was going on during the past and the present time. The fly is an angel who has come back as a fly to watch over the currant star of the story. So it's plot is unusual. It is slower in pace than I personally prefer. But all in all, I would rate it as a three star work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2013

    Meh...

    Started interesting enough, but turned meh, to less than meh by the end....

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2013

    Amateurish with a bad ending that answered nothing.  

    Amateurish with a bad ending that answered nothing.  

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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