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Jacob's Folly: A Novel Hardcover – March 5, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* 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 OBrien

Review

“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

“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 on The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (March 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374178542
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374178543
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 2.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #906,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Rebecca Miller has done what very few novelists can do well - write two competing story lines, set in two very different times and places. Normally, one story is stronger than the other. Not in Miller's novel. In "Jacob's Folly", Miller flips back and forth between Paris in the mid-1700's and New York in current times, with a common housefly narrating the connections between the characters and the plot lines. But the housefly is not a normal housefly; he is Jacob Cerf, a French Jew who cast off his religion and family, and reinvented himself as an actor at the Comedie-Francaise before dying. Reincarnated into a housefly with some special powers, he is sent into the future to watch over two people. How he protects these two, Masha and Leslie, is the pivotal part of the story.

Miller's two modern characters, Masha Edelman, a young Orthodox girl living on Long Island and dreaming of a life as an actor and singer, and Leslie Senzatimore, a married boat restorer and the son of a suicide, will dance around each other. Both are dissatisfied with their lives; both are searching for a path to discover what they really want. Jacob the housefly will flit between Masha and Leslie as he fills in the reader of his own life, love, deeds, and misdeeds from his previous life in Paris.

Miller has written a novel with just a touch of magic realism combined with characters who are drawn with such a nuanced hand that they almost seem real. Even the secondary characters are so fleshed out that they never seem like caricatures or props who are there only to help move the plot(s) along. The strongest component to Miller's book is how Judaism - the love of the religion as well as it's practice - has changed with the centuries.
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What a surprise and delight! I really loved this book. Funny and smart and generous. The author doesn't come down on the side of any one position but sees, like the fly, from a very wide and multi-focused angle. The novel is set in both 18th century France and 21st century Long Island and shows the appeal and the limitations of both the modern and traditional world without making any judgments. This one is different from Miller's earlier works; it's lusher, more capacious, full of mirth at her characters' antics and sympathetic to their weaknesses. The novel is woven into three strands (what Miller describes as "like a challah bread.") My only problem was that just as I got engrossed in one strand, the point of view changed, and I had to wait patiently or sneak ahead to see what happened to one of the characters. Well, if it is a challah bread, then it was served warm, fully baked, sweet to the taste and completely satisfying.
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"The iniquity of the sons shall be visited on the third and fourth generations."

The fact that I didn't care so much for the content of this story does not negate the fact that the writing is almost flawless. Within a story that bears a weighty moral fiber & sheds light on serious religious matters there abounds witticisms which do not seem misplaced in the least.

The story is nothing if not inventive & creative; in fact so outlandish it is fascinating. Jacob begins life as a peddler in a poor religious Jewish family in 18th century France. For reasons that are somewhat unsavory his life takes an unexpected turn & he slips into a life of debauchery leaving his religion & family behind & dies at a relatively early age.

Jacob is reincarnated & finds himself in the totally unfamiliar territory of 21st century USA. Initially he thinks he is an angel, but is soon to find out otherwise. He is a housefly.

In short order Jacob realizes that he has the ability to hear people's thoughts & that he can insert his own ideas into theirs. Inexplicably he sets out on a mission to direct Masha - an alluring ultra-Orthodox Jewess for whom he has formed a great affection & to misdirect Leslie Senzatimore - a married man with a penchant for doing good & saving people whom Jacob decides is just too nice. Soon the lives of these distinctly diverse people are intertwined due to Jacob's meddling.

Jacob in 18th century France & Jacob the reincarnated housefly in 21st century Long Island are two stories which emerge side by side but one soon finds the common thread with twists & turns that you hardly see coming.

Perhaps destiny is just that & cannot be changed.
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JACOB'S FOLLY is a challenging book in the very best sense. It's multifaceted, wickedly funny, quite moving. It's wonderful to follow its threads get woven together beautifully. An odd delight, a highly recommend.
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I loved the beginning as Jacob discovers he's a housefly - delightfully clever & creative - what a fascinating premise! And the portrayals of Orthodox Judaism, in current day Long Island and 18th-century Paris, were well-researched and interesting. But while the author skillfully wove the 3 stories together, the stories didn't engage me. Masha's story, even with its twists and turns, was predictable and had a hollywood ending. Leslie's story tried my patience (yes, I know he was under Jacob's powers of suggestion, but his "grand finale" was quite ridiculous...) And Jacob's story dragged on and on through too many ups and downs, too many things happening out of the blue as he kept reinventing himself. poor, rich, poor again, rich again - I lost track - oy! Maybe this was meant to show the randomness of existence, but it became tedious. My overall sense was that the book tried too hard to be oh-so clever, intelligent and zany, and though I enjoyed aspects of it, I was glad when it was over.
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