- Atlantic Books
- Publication Date:
- 01 April 2012
- Modern & Contemporary
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<em>Foreign Bodies</em> is on the 2012 Orange Prize short list, and thank goodness it was nominated or else I would have missed this book. Prior to her nomination, I had not heard of Cynthia Ozick (I know, shame on me!), but now that I am acquainted with her writing, I can't wait to explore her other novels. <em>Foreign Bodies</em> was a great way to become familiar with this talented American writer.Cynthia Ozick based her book on Henry James' novel, <em>The Ambassadors</em>. If you're not familiar with James' work, don't let that dissuade you from reading <em>Foreign Bodies. </em>Like me, you can read a quick synopsis of <em>The Ambassadors</em> online, and you'll be on your way. (Side note: Being more familiar with Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, may be more instrumental in appreciating <em>Foreign Bodies</em>.)Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged English teacher, was contacted out of the blue by her estranged brother, Marvin. Marvin's son, Julian, had escaped to Paris and would not return home, and Marvin wanted Bea to contact him while she was on her European vacation. Bea attempted to find Julian but could not, leaving Marvin furious and demanding that Bea try again - this time, though, being tutored in "all things Julian" by his sister, Iris. This begins a family struggle of epic proportions - father vs. child, aunt vs. nephew and husband vs. wife.Bea was her own woman with her own ideas. She may succumb to some of her brother's wishes, but she twists each wish into her own objective. She is constantly the messenger between Marvin, and his children or wife. And with that comes a certain power - the ability to withhold information, change it or divulge the whole thing. And Bea did all those things. I am not sure Bea realized the power she had until she was in the thick of things.The men of <em>Foreign Bodies</em> were despicable. Marvin was downright cruel and patronizing. Julian was a spoiled child, and when we meet Bea's ex-husband, Leo, he was nothing less than condescending. More subtle though were the despicable traits of the female characters. Iris appeared demure but could be as manipulative as her father. Marvin's wife, Margaret, knew had to throw verbal punches as well. And Bea? She had her faults too, and there were times in this story I questioned her reliability.<em>Foreign Bodies</em> is pure literary fiction. It is a complex and sophisticated novel, not meant to be enjoyed by the masses. At times, the story moves slowly, but by the last 75 pages, it was quite gripping. I would not be surprised if this book received the Orange Prize for 2012. It certainly would deserve it.
A good book, displaying all of Ozick's strengths: shimmering intelligence, crisp writing, humor, and a compassionate but clear eye. Somehow it seemed a little undone to me, perhaps due to having so many layers for a relatively brief book. But it is thought-provoking and very well-written. Perhaps better for fans of Ozick than newcomers.The book is said to be a reversal of Henry James's "The Ambassadors," and there's a reverse look at "Jane Eyre" as well. The setting -- Paris, New York and Los Angeles in the early 1950s -- is beautifully conveyed. There is a sense of callousness and ferocity not only in Postwar Paris, teeming with exiles and survivors of the Holocaust, but in most of the male characters. Family relationships are a minefield. Wives, daughters, girlfriends are bullied, used, ignored or abandoned. To be a son is to strive to escape your father's failure, or, worse, success. There are no "nice" characters. But they are all memorable.
Parts of this book are excellent. I gather it is a retelling of the plot of Henry James <i>The Ambassadors though the sex of some of the characters is changed as are many situations. The best part is that it's set in the 1950's so benefited from the addition of Jewish WWII refugees - "those people" as they're frequently referred to. They seem to be pretty equally despised by Americans and the French, as if they are to blame for their situation. The man, a possible Vichy sympathizer, who sets up services to aid in their reunification with their families could have been a sympathetic character. However, there are few sympathetic characters in the story, none of them men, so it seems his desire to assist the refugees was that he wanted their influence out of France and into Jerusalem or anywhere else he could find for them to go. Bea the narrator and main character was quite a surprise, both to the reader and to herself. She interferes in ways she never would have dreamed of doing before the whole adventure began, she formed alliances she never would have considered and she gained respect where she never would have looked. Rich Jews and rich Christians were equally obnoxious, as were both children. In fact everyone in the book except Lilly the survivor was so extremely self centered it's amazing they ever left the house and their own company. More than once I found myself saying, "Huh!" It's an interesting book, but choppy.
Bea Nightingale, the main character in this multi-layered novel, lives a quiet life teaching English literature to an obstreperous group of young men until her little-known niece arrives from California. What follows are journeys back and forth to Paris at the behest of Bea's odious brother to learn more about her missing nephew. Bea's relatives and her long-since divorced husband are self-absorbed and oblivious to Bea's good intentions. There is a pervasive sadness to this book of lives wasted.
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