The premise of the story does sound a bit bizarre and whimsical, but it works superbly! It is about man called Jacob who died in 18th century Paris, and finds himself reincarnated as a fly on modern day Long Island New York. He can of course be a fly on the wall and observe people, but Jacob also finds that he has the ability to enter the minds of humans now and can manipulate them as he wishes. There are two people in particular that catch his interest: Masha and Leslie. What are Jacob’s plans for these two? Are they good or bad? How will their lives change?
Jacob began his life in the Jewish quarter of Paris and grew up in a loving but poor family. He is active in his community, observant in his religion and works hard, but Jacob longs for a life outside of the getto. But not at any cost; Jacob is too honest to be a successful business man, which is something the people around him soon understand. Somehow he ends up in a house with golden candelabras and a housekeeper, and dies at the age of thirty. How did the rakish but kind-hearted Jacob become so wealthy? And why did he die alone? As the book progresses, we learn that the answers involved a miserable teenage marriage, weapons, prison and a mysterious count.
I knew the book would be good from the very first sentence – a perfect rendering of Jacob’s eloquent, homourus, 18th-century voice:
I, the being in question, having spent nearly three hundred years lost as a pomegranate pip in a lake aspic, amnesiac, bodiless and comatose, a nugget of spirit and nothing else, found myself quickening, gaining form, weight and finally consciousness.
Parallel to Jacob’s life story is the tale of his reincarnation as a fly. The first person he sees as he awakens from the dead is Leslie Senzatimore, the honest family man par excellence and king amongst men. Jacob can hear Leslie’s every thought, can enter his memory and sees and opportunity. Leslie is a volunteer fire-fighter, successful business owner and the pillar his entire family lean on. His house contains “three sleeping children, one au pair, a splendid wife, two cats, a daughter-in-law and an aging cocker-spaniel”. Leslie became the bedrock of his family when his father committed suicide, and he is still the one is sister, mother, in-laws, wife and children absolute rely upon – and Leslie loves it! He loves being a hero! But now a fly has started to manipulate his life. His craving to save others grows more intense, his fears for his deaf son increase, his marriage to Dierdre starts to show cracks. And everything becomes worse when he meets Masha.
Masha is young girl who has grown up in an orthodox Jewish family. It is a loving household stuffed with children, but also with some clear ideas about how Masha should live her life. Masha loves her family and following most of their religious rules are as natural as breathing to her as breathing. But she enjoys singing, performing and acting as well although that is banned by her community. Jacob falls in love with her the day he lands on her exposed nipple. He sees some clear parallels between her life and the one he lead, and decides to persuade her to take an acting class. The angelic, beautiful and wise Martha turns out to have an incredible acting talent, but should she leave her family and home behind to face an incredibly uncertain future?
As we explore Jacob’s human life, we start to understand more of the unsettling plan in the fly’s mind and you really start to wonder whether Jacob will be a protecting angel or a malevolent demon in Masha and Leslie’s lives. It raises the questions about why we choose to lead our lives the way we do. What drives Leslie’s constant need to be a hero? How far is he willing to go to maintain this self-image? What makes Marsha and Jacob long for a life away from their kind and loving families? Miller gives us some insightful answers.