Rebecca Miller’s follow up to The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a wise and warm look at belief, identity, fate and make believe. J.Anthony George reviews the latest effort from the award-winning screen-writer, director and novelist
Spanning three centuries, multiple lives and an almost metaphysical narrative Miller’s novel might, at first, sound overly ambitious and pretentious. Ambitious it is, (but not over-reaching and certainly not to its detriment) pretentious it certainly is not. Entertaining, witty and humane it absolutely is.
The novel begins and ends with the two deaths of Jacob Cerf, a Jewish pedlar of knives and trinkets on the streets of 18th century Paris. Upon his death, having risen from a position of urban and societal confinement (not to mention religious restraint and imposition), to become a doyen of Parisian theatrical life, he is reincarnated, not as he hoped in the guise of an angel, but as a common housefly – as lusty and mischievous as when he was a man.
The object of his desire is Masha Edelman, a young woman struggling to live with her Jewish orthodoxy in the 21st Century against dreams of theatrical stardom. Though the purpose of his earthly reinstatement is, so he believes, to go the aid of Leslie Senzatimore, a Long Island volunteer fire-fighter and all round upstanding family man and ‘good American’, Jacob loses interest in the man’s moral rigidity, finding it far more interesting to buzz around the enchanting Masha.
When he discovers his ability to delve into the minds and memories of the protagonists, he attempts to set forth events according to his own agenda, in spite of “that old tyrant” God, who he believes is punishing him for the transgressions of his past life. Jacob is well aware that customs, traditions and what may appear to be (that most flimsy of concepts) our destiny, can be subverted and reordered, having been himself the subject of a wager between two ‘enlightened’ thinkers’ ideas about culture, society and the shaping of men.
Miller possesses a vivid prose style, easily traversing between the bawdy, candle light excess and squalor of pre-Revolutionary Paris and modern day suburban settings Far Rockaway, Queens and Long Island. The transition rarely jars other than to sometimes frustrate for not returning more often to one story thread over another. Aside from the rather clunky introduction of a failed-but-on-the-up talent agent near the end (rather too deus ex machina even for this tale), every character, however transitory, is drawn in excellent detail. There’s a sensory dimension to the writing too, that, at various times, positively forces sex pheromones up the nostrils. Lust is a tantalising, intoxicating brew no matter the century and Miller’s writing oozes, unctuous and ripe.