The balance to be found between duty and desire is an inner struggle that all in life will have to face, the choice between self-interest and the needs of those around you have a way of conflicting and it is this moral dilemma that Rebecca Miller concerns herself with in Jacob’s Folly.
Transcending time and space, Miller’s second novel follows the apparently disparate lives of two Jews, one an impoverished pedlar in seventeenth century France, desperate to escape his humble roots and live the glamorous Parisian life, the other a beautiful yet sickly girl living in modern day Queens, New York, struggling with a forbidden love-affair for acting. Separated by three centuries and the Atlantic, Jacob Cerf and Masha Edelman are brought together by a cosmic intervention that places both characters on a journey of self-discovery.
The way in which Miller manages to weave all of the characters in Jacob’s Folly together is nothing short of inspired; at a glacial pace each character is bizarrely yet inescapably drawn towards one another, building up a story of Jewish success and hardship that lasts twelve generations.
However each character from Leslie Senzatimore, the all-American hero, to Max Levi the ninth in Jacob’s lineage, must choose duty or themselves. What transpires is that neither brings happiness, Masha who chooses to pursue her sinful love of acting is (for the most part) unfulfilled, unable to please both Nevsky and her fiercely orthodox mother, she is stuck between two worlds. The same is true for Jacob who again betrays his Semitism for the glamorous life of firstly a Valet and then a successful actor.
Despite having attained the social stature he craved as an outcast Jew, he still feels that he is an outcast, finding pleasure only briefly in decadent parties and bottles of champagne. When looking at the struggles of supposedly ‘free’ liberal Jews in the novel, it seems that the pious are more content with life.
Considering the complexity of the novel’s plot it seems altogether unnecessary to add an equally confusing narrative. However Miller opts to split the narration between an extradiegetic narrator and the celestial Jacob who has travelled through time and been re-incarnated as a fly. This is an element of the book that seems to have very little purpose or relevance to the plot, other than being karmic retribution for Jacob’s sinful and hedonistic previous life. Aside from this it merely juts out of Miller’s sharp and quick-witted writing as being contrived.
Once the fly-narrative subsides however, we are left with a thought-provoking story that explores the defiance of Judaism in an anti-Semitic Europe, as well as the timeless difficulty of choosing to please yourself or others.