Jacob's Folly: A Novel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2013


Jacob is reborn in the twenty-first century, two hundred-some years after his death. He can fly about. No one can see him. He thinks he must be an angel—until a look in the mirror dashes that hope: it's no heavenly being that stares back at him but a common house fly. Jacob is the proverbial all-seeing, all-hearing fly on the wall, divinely enhanced. Not only can he observe the two humans to whom he first bonds, but he also has omniscient access to their thoughts and memories, and even the ability to influence their will.

Absurd premise? Yes, but the absurdity is delightful, and Rebecca Miller pulls it off with aplomb.

Leslie Senzatimore, the first human Jacob encounters, is a volunteer fireman and all-around do-gooder faced with many burdens: troublesome in-laws, a deaf child, and the haunting memory of his father's suicide. Jacob quickly loses interest in Leslie, deeming him too incorruptible to be much fun. He turns his focus, instead, to Masha, a young ultra-Orthodox Jew, whose exposure to the wonders of television during a hospital stay ignites in her a fierce desire to become an actress. With her bewitching beauty and dreamy air, she may have what it takes to succeed. Goaded on by Jacob, Masha pursues illicit co-ed acting lessons and excels. At the same time, however, she is dating to find a husband. All too soon, it becomes obvious that she will have to make the monumental choice between her ambition and her family's traditions.

The tale of Jacob's life as a Jew in eighteenth-century Paris unfolds alongside Leslie and Masha's converging fates. Part of a small, barely tolerated community, Jacob provides for himself by peddling knives and snuff boxes. His mundane work gives way to lively adventure, detailed drolly. Jacob's difficult marriage, a beguiling weapon of unknown origin, and the attention of a mysterious French count supply the intrigue that brings Jacob ever closer to his death.

Jacob's voice is irresistible throughout. Miller demonstrates a deft hand for creating unforgettable characters and charged scenes. Her inventiveness never fails to enchant. Hilarious and compulsively readable, Jacob's Folly is huge fun.

Read Rebecca Miller's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

Rebecca Miller on Gluckel of Hameln

The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes by Edouard de Pomiane

Discussion Questions

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 Mashaface 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 indaily life prepare him for a career onstage?

7. Ultimately, does Hugh lead Masha to a better life, “healing” her in away? 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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