A Literal Fly on the Wall

Book Review of “Jacob’s Folly” by Rebecca Miller.

698ba-jacobs_follyJacob Cerf was an impoverished, religious Jewish peddler in 18th Century Paris. Circumstance led him away from his family and faith and into a world of impious debauchery. 300 years later, he’s back, but now he’s a fly in 21st Century New York and involved in the lives of two people. One is Masha – an innocent girl, sheltered from the world by her orthodox Jewish family. The other is the model citizen, husband and father, Leslie Senzatimore. As Jacob curses his new fate, he decides to repay his maker by bringing these two together putting their goodness to test.

Obviously, Rebecca Miller has taken the literary “a fly on the wall” point of view to a new level, by literally making her fly the narrator of the story. Initially this is why I had some doubts about this novel. Whenever I come across this type of mechanic in a book, I question its use. We aren’t flies, so giving an insect a voice seems an absurd idea, if not a gimmick. Authors using such stunts in their writing, usually sound like they’re trying to be clever. However, the more I read, the more I came to accept this affectation as almost natural. What’s more, however ridiculous this may sound, in spite of everything, this conceit actually works; but not exactly as you might expect.

The point is, if we are to suspend disbelief, it must be for a good reason, and artfully done. In both of these, Miller succeeds. Regarding the reason, having a 300-year-old Jacob living in this world as a fly allows Miller to recount his human life through his flashbacks. Juxtaposing this with Masha and Leslie also draws parallels and highlights the differences between these three people. Jacob started out as a virtuous and devout man, and at the outset, both Masha and Leslie are righteous people. Remembering the misfortune and temptation that led to his downfall, and despising his present state, Jacob decides to lure them away from morality and faith. In fact, boiled down to the common denominator, Miller is dealing with the subjects of God vs. Satan, virtue vs. vise and devotion vs. desecration.

This may sound heavy, but Miller actually uses quite a light touch here, with language that hovers somewhere between the lyrical and the ordinary. By flitting between Jacob’s past life 300 years ago, and the 21st century lives of Masha and Leslie, we realize that each of these two story lines would be fascinating on their own. However, Jacob (as a fly) unites these tales, and that brings in yet another dimension to the story, that of reward and punishment. To point this up, Miller uses the concept of reincarnation, or more specifically, the Jewish Kabbalistic concept of “gilgul neshamot” – the transmigration of souls.

It is important to note that it is often problematic when Judaism comes up in books written by non-Jewish authors. This can be especially true when it comes to something as esoteric as the Kabbalah. Miller, however, overcame this hurdle with immense aplomb, and I could find absolutely no fault with even the tiniest of Jewish aspects. Moreover, nothing included is the least bit overt or gratuitous, lending even more to the flow of the prose. While I’m sure most of the kudos for this goes to her researchers, Miller also deserves no small amount of praise for just attempting this feat.

Even more amazing is how both Jacob and Masha are such vivid characters. The richness of their Jewish lives contrasts beautifully with their trapped feelings. The guilt they experience when they breaking a Jewish law counterbalances with the adrenalin rush of doing something forbidden. Both have the inner struggle of wanting to remain within that sheltered, comfortable world while desiring the fearful freedom outside its protection. Miller also gives Leslie this same philosophical grappling when delving into the motivations behind heroism. With him, she asks the question, are those who risk their own lives to save an unknown someone actually altruistic? Also, is there something selfish hidden beneath their actions? While this is absorbing, in general, Leslie doesn’t feel as realistic as Jacob and Masha. The parts of the story where we get to know Leslie and how he meets Masha, felt mechanical and sketchy compared to the rest of the book. Because of this, the whole of this book is greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite whatever reservations one might have regarding a fly as both narrator and antagonist of a story – especially one with a human past – this really is a beguiling novel. Miller weaves these stories together like a fine tapestry. The accuracy regarding Jewish orthodoxy and its history enhances the action, and adds an exotic element that carefully contributes to the characters and their development like just the right amount of spice in a gourmet dish. All told, I think this novel deserves a solid four stars out of five and gets my recommendation.


“Jacob’s Folly” by Rebecca Miller is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank Cannongate for sending me the uncorrected proof copy of this novel via Curious Book Fans. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans, that also appeared(under my username TheChocolateLady) on {the now defunct} sites Dooyoo and Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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