Pippa was about a sparky heroine bursting with desires, while struggling to be good. What made it memorable was all the food, the sex, and the seductive malleability of Pippa herself.
Jacob’s Folly has a more ambitious plot structure, centred around three individuals. Representing the modern day, we have Leslie Senzatimore, a family man and fireman living in the modern day USA; Masha, a 21 year old girl from an orthodox Jewish family. And in the 18th Century France corner, the eponymous Jacob: an 18th century Jewish-French peddler who is reincarnated as a bad angel (I won’t give away any secrets as to what form this takes) with an affinity to both Masha and Leslie.
The strands of plot are ingeniously woven together by the angel Jacob’s power to experience Leslie’s and Masha’s thoughts and feelings – this feels for the most part unobtrusive and natural, as we are carried along on the characters’ exuberance and the strengths of their feelings.
As with Pippa, one of the central themes is goodness and what it is to be good and desire to be good. In fact, when Jacob meets Leslie, that cat rescuing, family building fireman, everyone’s hero:
“I felt a sudden, acute dislike for Leslie Senzatimore. He reminded me, I realized, of my father, a man whose damning rectitude could scorch your eyebrows if you got too close to him.”
This is the same Jacob we originally see as an innocent young man in France, trying his best to make his way and do the right thing in a hard world, where society doles out nothing but injustice to Jews, and in which Jews themselves oppress each other with the constraints of their own society.
The rich trappings and stark sufferings of the eighteenth century’s physical world are vividly described, but so too are the intensity of inner conscience, and the peace and reassurance of the rituals that the orthodox Jews cling to.
This is a world still alive within Masha’s community. Masha’s desire to act and the conflict this brings her into regarding her upbringing and religion is portrayed through the conflict this brings her at every turn. Such as tight jeans and a cheeseburger, those two most every day America pleasures. Wearing tight jeans for the first time is for Masha “like a mermaid having her tail cut in two”. And Miller does a great job of conveying Masha’s innocence to the reader. She really makes us feel for her heroine, without ever turning her into something winsome or artful. Jacob’s Folly must contain the most memorable cheeseburger ever ordered – ultra observant Jews don’t combine meat and dairy. It is almost by accident that Masha subverts one of the casual curiosities of living life outside the mainstream American way: “She hadn’t planned to; she just blurted it out.” But minutes later, she “ate up her guilt, consumed it like a little heart.” This is curiosity satisfied and the fires it stokes up within.
I have to say that the only problem with the rich, parallel lives of Masha and Jacob, is that Leslie loses out in comparison. Yes, he’s suffered some bad stuff in the past, but this seems rather insipid when compared and with the strengths of Masha’s innermost desires. And yes, he rescues cats and single mothers, but look at what Jacob’s achieved just by staying alive,
The lives of Masha and Jacob are just that much more colourful. This is one of those novels following characters as they travel outwards from the extremes of repression, and every day experiences bloom at every turn into the wonderful and amazing (think Wendy Perriam’s Devils, For A Change – although I’ve just looked on Amazon and it’s out of print. Ouch, I feel old.)
This is an enjoyable, energetic read. The only thing is, the journey is a little bit more interesting than the outcome – there is no great, stirring revelation or dénouement (just as I was complaining in my Good Books post!) However, the intricacy with which Miller reproduces the orthodox Jewish life is breathtaking and there’s nothing wrong with a journey for the sake of it from time to time. Along with the creme brulées, those “rinks of caramelized sugar” atop “thick, vanilla-scented cream” of Pippa Lee, the cheeseburger of modern day New York is now ready to be filed under “Food oriented Rebecca Miller books, to make you go Mmmmm.”