Jacob Cerf has a few strikes against him: he is a Jew in 18th-century Paris, and he doesn’t really care about business. He peddles trinkets from a box hung around his neck, though he hates doing it. Even worse, his parents marry him off as a teenager to an even younger teen who is not quite all there, and his in-laws don’t like him or his prospects any better than his father did. When he gets an opportunity to work as a valet for a nobleman, though, he still resists. But eventually he finds himself in the service of the dissolute Comte de Villars and having to live an entirely different life.
Jacob dies young, and he doesn’t know quite what happened to him for a few centuries until he finds himself conscious again, floating, flying. He thinks perhaps he has been given new life as an angel. But no. He is a fly. He ends up following two very different people in this current day: the 40-something Leslie, a man who just can’t help trying to save people, which includes taking care of his in-laws and his stepson and his young wife and baby; and 21-year-old Masha, an Orthodox Jew who should be getting married, donning a wig and raising a brood of children but who really just wants to be an actress. Jacob, not the noblest of souls in either of his incarnations, decides he wants to make the gorgeous Masha leave behind her faith and become a star as well as lead the thoughtful and reliable Leslie to do something shameful. Because Jacob has some useful tricks: he finds he can put thoughts into the heads of people — and he projects some devious ideas into the minds of his targets.
Throughout Jacob’s Folly, readers alternately read about Jacob’s old life as a human and about the lives of Leslie and Masha and how Jacob manages to ever so gradually lead them down the paths he envisions. Jacob simply isn’t a very good soul; he was an observant Jew but not necessarily from wholehearted faith, and he is happy to play with the lives of Masha and Leslie. He doesn’t know why he is now a fly, but he’s just going to make a game of this life he now leads. His fate at the end of the book and the lessons he may or may not learn are pretty intriguing and almost satisfying.
I had a few quibbles with the book, but I couldn’t deny that Miller is a gifted writer. A very clever premise led to an interesting story and conclusion, all in language masterfully written.
Rated: High. There are seven or eight uses of strong language and fairly frequent moderate and mild language. There is a lot of general coarseness and vulgarity, as well. There are several sexual scenes that aren’t necessarily long or detailed but are all crude. The sexual scenes and references in the 18th-century sections are particularly distasteful; the characters just have nasty predilections, including S&M, that I didn’t like reading about, even in passing.