Jacob's Folly: A Novel

Jacob's Folly: A Novel

by Rebecca Miller


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In Rebecca Miller's dazzling and inventive new novel, we meet characters separated by time but united in their desire to live a life of their own choosing, free from the constraints of community and tradition.

In eighteenth-century Paris, Jacob Cerf is a Jewish street peddler burdened by a disastrous young marriage but determined to raise himself up by whatever means he can. His richly observed life in Paris' Jewish ghetto is radically altered when he gains entrance to the opulent world of the aristocracy and the freedom to create his own identity. More than two hundred years later, Jacob reappears in surprising form in the suburbs of Long Island. He soon becomes obsessed by a young Orthodox Jewish woman with a secret ambition. Determined to change her fate, Jacob takes it upon himself to entangle her with a conflicted volunteer fireman. As Jacob's mischievous plans unfold, the burdens of duty and the pull of desire will twist the lives of all three.

Rebecca Miller explores the hold of the past on the present, the power of private hopes and dreams, the collision of fate and free will, and change in all of its various guises. Transfiguring her world with a clear gaze and sharp, surprising wit, she brings Jacob's Folly vividly to life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250043603
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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, 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.

Read an Excerpt


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

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.

1. 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?

2. 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?

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

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. Ultimately, does Hugh lead Masha to a better life, "healing" her in a way? What was at the heart of Pearl's fears?

8. 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?

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

10. 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).

11. 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?

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

13. 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?

14. 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?

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