By – May 13, 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?