Two cousins search for their Jewish identity in the Paris of 2015
Jacob’s Advice is the story of Larry Frost, a British doctor living in Paris, who is convinced he is Jewish. The tale is told through the eyes of his sceptical cousin, Nick Newman, who listens and laughs, suffers and waits, as he tries to understand his own place in the world.
Following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in January 2015, Paris appears to be back to business-as-usual. Yet tensions run deep and the two cousins are about to get drawn into the slipstream . . . Larry’s quest for his true identity, through the fractured, uneasy, magical streets of Paris, reaches its climax in Amsterdam, where the mysterious Jacob Bloom reveals a family secret linked to the dark days of WWII that will change both cousins’ lives forever.
Set against a backdrop of increased extremism, nationalism, and the resurgence of antisemitism, Jacob’s Advice is an urgent and topical exploration of identity, race, family, modern Europe, and the inescapable nature of the past. It’s also a love letter to Paris and a reflection on its recent tragedy.
Nick, a historian specialising in revolutionary France, is divorced, missing his seven-year-old son, and struggling with the after-effects of an adverse reaction to an antibiotic, which has left him with extensive nerve damage. When the Sorbonne offers him a research fellowship, he is thrilled. He hopes that his cousin, Larry, a neuro-pharmacologist who lives in Paris and campaigns against Big Pharma, will help him get legal revenge on the drugs company that has wrecked his health.
However, once in the 5th arrondissement, Nick finds Larry preoccupied by his own great mission to prove that he – and therefore Nick – is Jewish. An exuberant philosemite, Larry has long had his suspicions (and hopes). Now he’s dating a Jewish woman, Ariel Levine, and living with her family in the Marais, he has even more reason to try to prove it.
As Nick, Larry and Ariel weave through the cool spring evenings in the bars and bistros of the Latin Quarter, they talk about life, love, ethnicity, Je Suis Charlie, and how Paris is changing. Nick is troubled by his inability to sustain a relationship with his son, but Larry feels he has met the love of his life, and is also getting closer to claiming the ethnicity he has always wanted.
It is only when Larry proposes to Ariel that her secular, cosmopolitan parents firmly reject him: their daughter will never marry out. At the same time, Nick’s ex-wife threatens to take their son out of his reach. And then disaster strikes Paris, with the terrorist attacks of November 13th. With both cousins in emotional disarray, and the city in trauma, they finally hear from an old man in Amsterdam, Jacob Bloom, who wants to tell them a secret. As they set off for a long weekend, where Nick will also meet his ex-wife and son, the stage is set for a tense denouement, with everything riding on Jacob’s long-hoped-for advice.
My cousin, the well-known pharmacologist Larry Frost, always maintained his three favourite Americans were Jewish men: Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen. Out of a nation of 300 million, it was this triumvirate with which he most identified. ‘Of course,’ I counselled him, being older by seven years, ‘liking them doesn’t make you Jewish too.’ But he was convinced somewhere, deep down, he had to be. There had to be a reason for his strong sense of empathy. He loved the output of all three unreservedly, even the later, unfunny, unlistenable or unreadable works. By some accident or mix-up in our family lineage, he insisted, there had to be a reason for his overwhelming feeling of consanguinity. He was a philosemite extraordinaire, if not one of the Chosen People. Obsessed with the notion. Absolutely in thrall to it; which was, and is, his nature. This conviction reached an apex of what I considered almost mystical grandeur and absurdity when he moved to Paris in the autumn of last year and found himself a Jewish girlfriend. Ariel, almost twenty years his junior, and so pretty she broke men’s hearts at thirty paces as she approached them on the dust-blessed, pollen-laden Parisian streets. Where has she been all my life? they would ask their secret souls – me included, when I finally met her. On the kind of sunny morning when the air still breathes Flaubert’s famous exhalations of ‘love and intelligence’, Ariel was unstoppable. Her tiny, luminous mouse-face, with its languorous red gouge of a mouth, often peeking from under a beret clamped to a crown of shimmering black hair, was an engine of attraction. Add to this a formidable mind and an even stronger will, and she was devastating. But I’m getting carried away . . . I must first let you meet Larry, and explain how and why I came to be living in Paris myself.
I should establish straight away that we are both doctors, but of different kinds. Larry to his new colleagues is Dr Lawrence Frost, a visiting neuropharmacologist at the Institut Pasteur on the rue de Vaugirard. And I, to my students back home at Birkbeck, am Dr Newman – Nicholas Newman, a Research Fellow specialising in the History of Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic era. I’ve published widely on the First Republic and the Jacobin cause, and was once asked to be historical advisor on a romantic comedy set at the time of the Terror – not much of either genre to be found there, I argued; so in the end I said no. I’m only Nick to my closest friends (and Dad to my son, whom I won’t be seeing for a while now I’m resident here). Larry, by contrast, is Larry to everyone after a first encounter. He’s even Larry to the directrice-générale of the Institut. He has that kind of effect on people. In fact, I’ve always thought there was something Promethean about Larry – not in his suffering, I rarely see any of that, but in his daring; his intrepid, principled force. Though nicely berthed at the Department of Neuroscience since October (and at the palatial Place des Vosges apartment of Ariel’s parents, no less), he has always held adversarial positions. Against everything, it seems. A true contrarian. Ever since I’ve known him as a ‘grown-up’ he’s been something of a crusader against the monstrous $600bn pharmaceutical industry, with its shabby regulation, its market-driven misdemeanours, its academics sucking at the lucrative teat of the drugs manufacturers. After graduating as a med doctor, followed by a stunning MSc in cellular function from King’s, Larry seems to have made a career from his Cassandra voice, penning articles everywhere from the BMJ to the broadsheets. Maybe I should revise ‘well-known’ pharmacologist to ‘notorious’. He’s a one-man revolution; a corrector of consciousnesses, and conscience.
Seems like a week ago
Wednesday, 12 June 2019
So, a week after launching my new novel JACOB'S ADVICE with the good people at Unbound we are 15% funded with almost 60 supporters. All the Early Bird hardbacks have been snapped up, and seven of you are joining me for a Salon Night of heavy literary yak and good red wine... A fine start! A massive thank you to all who have backed the book so far... It means a great deal to me that you've dug deep…
These people are helping to fund Jacob's Advice: A Novel.