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Fly on the wall: 'Jacob's Folly' by Rebecca Miller

"Jacob's Folly" by Rebecca Miller (FSG, March 2013) Photo Credit: Handout

JACOB'S FOLLY, by Rebecca Miller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 371 pp., $26.

In "Jacob's Folly," Rebecca Miller has landed on a narrative voice that's antique, droll, racy and occasionally cutting -- imagine an 18th century French rake played by David Niven. But instead of putting a handsome man behind that voice, Miller has given it to a fly.

A common housefly, yes, but more important, it's the proverbial fly on the wall. Embodying that metaphor so literally is silly but also brilliant; this is what writers do, spy on their invented worlds, eavesdrop on their characters. The fly, Jacob, can and does.

Jacob begins as a Jewish peddler in pre-Revolutionary Paris. Of his former self, Jacob recalls, "I was dark, short, slight, with light blue eyes, strong teeth, and a thick, long sex which I scented and coiled inside my britches daily with great care and pride." Reincarnated as a fly over contemporary suburban Long Island, he now imagines himself "a fully-formed Christian seraph" of great beauty, sent by a benevolent god on a mission.

Jacob observes two people in detail: Leslie, a volunteer fireman and small-business owner, and comely Masha, a Jewish Orthodox woman. He has access to their inner thoughts and histories, which convinces him that his task is to bring them together.

Jacob's life in Paris is richly imagined: ritual hand-washing, his flatulent wife and a meticulous police officer overseeing the tiny Jewish population.

More than 200 years later, Masha's Orthodox family carries on many of Jacob's traditions. Their community remains apart from society, but Masha finds within herself an irresistible desire to act. Surreptitiously taking theater classes brings her into dangerous contact with the outside world. And Leslie.

Leslie is a 21st century American hero, strong-silent edition. He supports a multigenerational family with his boat repair business; when the recession hits, he does the stand-up thing and takes a job he'd rather avoid. That job, at the service of a rich boat owner, gives Miller a chance to draw a hysterically funny picture of idle wealth.

Miller, the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, is the author of two previous books, "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" and "Personal Velocity." Where those projects were close, intimate stories, this is an imaginative leap yoking historical fiction to a contemporary drama.

In a book this ambitious, there are bound to be a few rough patches, and in "Jacob's Folly" it's that the end arrives too quickly. The detail drops away as Leslie and Masha's fates collide, and Jacob's successes are more thinly rendered than his troubles. In places, Leslie's point of view fades, and Masha is a bit opaque. These are quibbles -- a rushed ending is hardly an offense in a book as delightful, bawdy, detailed and complicated as this.

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