Foreign bodies

by Cynthia Ozick

Paper Book, 2010





Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.


Presents a retelling of Henry James's "The Ambassadors" that follows the efforts of divorced schoolteacher Bea Nightingale to navigate a turbulent year spent with her estranged brother's family.

Media reviews

In Foreign Bodies, Ozick has taken the framework of James's plot and turned it into a scaffold to support her perennial subject – the fate of the 20th-century Jew. The novel she has produced extends the reach of James's novel geographically and emotionally – and moves beyond homage into the realm of independent creation. It turns out that the road to perdition is a fruitful one.
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Instead of an hourglass, Ozick has given us, to use James's own term, “a loose, baggy monster” accommodating, among other things, Yiddish folk tales, a series of letters, zigzags in time and space and digressions on the advent of television in America and the nature of a scherzo. As for language, in place of James's filigree of circumvolution and ambiguity, we get overt statement and oodles of over-the-top-and-down-in-the-ditch prose... It's as if Ozick has seized the exquisitely written chamber music of James's masterpiece and arranged it for brass band; while there are passages as good as Gershwin's An American in Paris – many graced by marvellous images – there are frequent false notes, too....For a consummate celebration of Paris and for a profound exploration of the tragic disjunction between what we wish to be true and what we can't escape knowing to be real, read The Ambassadors. But for an evocation of unspeakable loss and unfathomable love rooted in the nightmare of a history James couldn't begin to imagine, you couldn't do better than Foreign Bodies.
Yet, unlike "Heir to the Glimmering World" or "Dictation," "Foreign Bodies" never seems to come to fruition. Partly, that's due to the nature of its construction — even though you don't need to have read "The Ambassadors" to understand it; there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners, a comment about "all this ambassadorial traffic" in an early piece of dialogue, or a recollection of Bea's father reading "George Meredith and Henry James."
Foreign Bodies tells a tale of “children gone wrong, life gone wrong, love traduced [and] hope rotted”. Bea’s meddling in these awful people’s lives leads to tragedy. She acts out of a mixture of boredom and despair but her desire for revenge after years of neglect is laced with kindness. Ozick is not in the business of providing easy answers. She deals in big themes – not the least of which is anti-Semitism – yet uses a playful style to explore them. To echo the most famous line in The Ambassadors (“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to”): read this wonderful novel; it would be a mistake not to.
Ozick follows in his distant wake, but however much she reveres James’s great art, she doesn’t fear sailing on the oceans of blood spilled after his own slow-moving galleon finally docked. “Foreign Bodies” is a nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called “the real thing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I've never read anything by Cynthia Ozick beyond a short story or two, so I thought to remedy this with this book. Set during the 1952, Foreign Bodies is the story of Bea, whose life has been on hold since her husband left her years earlier. She goes on a trip to Europe and her brother orders her to find his son and to bring him home. She fails, but is now enmeshed in the life of her brother's family. Her brother is a blow-hard who has estranged every member of his family and it's not hard to see why, but those family members aren't very nice themselves and it's hard to see why Bea is willing to involve herself in all that drama. Bea, through all the family drama, wakes up and begins to take an active role in the lives of those around her, finding that while it's difficult to change one's own life, it's relatively easy to have an impact in the lives of others.

Oddly, while I liked none of the characters and disliked several of them, and wasn't gripped by the plot, I could not stop reading this book. It's written in an old-fashioned style, which suits it's post-war setting and has a fearsome momentum that left me turning pages, uncertain of what lay around the bend.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Foreign Bodies 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. Foreign Bodies was a great way to become familiar with this talented American writer.

Cynthia Ozick based her book on Henry James' novel, The Ambassadors. If you're not familiar with James' work, don't let that dissuade you from reading Foreign Bodies. Like me, you can read a quick synopsis of The Ambassadors online, and you'll be on your way. (Side note: Being more familiar with Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, may be more instrumental in appreciating Foreign Bodies.)

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 Foreign Bodies 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.

Foreign Bodies 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member LizzieD
I don't think that Foreign Bodies "sparkles" as a blurb from the New Yorker advertises on the cover of my copy. What I do think is problematic. Ozick takes the plot of Henry James's The Ambassadors as a jumping off place to explore the lives of brother and sister Nachtigall in 1952. Bea, at her brother's request, goes off to Paris to retrieve her nephew and return him to his father. Julian has no intention of being retrieved; he is married to an older woman, left widowed and childless by the war. Bea goes home, reports, and returns to Paris only to find brother Marvin's favorite child Iris also there. The children are rude, Lili the new wife offers Bea a look at their marriage, which reflects some facets of Bea's own, and Bea heads back for the states. Marvin continues to rant and intimidate Bea, who continues to teach Shakespeare to hardcase boys and to try to free herself from the psychological bonds to her divorced husband.
All this is interesting enough, but these are not real people. They are even more unreal than HJ's characters. Ozick doesn't try to reproduce HJ's style, but there is something of his minute observation in her long passages of introspection and memory. Since this is such a short book, it's too much. On the other hand, there's not enough depth to make the characters work. I don't know. The writing is often beautiful. The situation is ripe for development. Things happen - but they are either totally at odds with the way people that I know function or totally predictable. So what do I think? I don't know.
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LibraryThing member Laura400
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.
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LibraryThing member Nickelini
Set in 1952, Bea is an almost-50 year old, divorced high school English teacher. She gets sucked up into the drama of her estranged brother's messed up family, and this takes her away from her boring life in New York to both Bohemian Paris and a Beverly Hills mental institution. The story was interesting, if you can suspend disbelief and accept that she would allow her brother to bully her relentlessly. And Ozick is a fabulously gifted writer. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but maybe it was my mood because the second half didn't do much for me. I think I was tired of the characters by then--none of them are particularly likeable.

The thing I really didn't like about the book was an undercurrent of nastyness. I'm not talking just "dark," because I like dark. There was something else unpleasant going on, and I wonder if Ozick is a bitter and angry woman. This is reflected in both the characters and her word choice.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Parts of this book are excellent. I gather it is a retelling of the plot of Henry James 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member kgib
I read about a third of The Ambassadors before starting this, which I don't think is necessary, but it did help me appreciate the book more. I liked the ideas (about expatriates and displaced persons and the world post-WWII) more than the plot or the characters, although I thought Bea worked as the central character. One problem I had was that Marvin seemed cartoonishly mean.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
Start with a recommendation from David Foster Wallace; add in a novel that got a lot to do with one of my five favorite novels (James' Ambassadors)... well, you'd think I'd love it. And yet, I conclude, meh.

First the fun stuff (fun, at least, for people like me): Ozick takes James' 'ficelle,' the character who exists only to let the plot carry on doing what it needs to do, and turns her into the main character. I always fall in love with James' ficelles (usually single/'oldmaid'30ish women who are smarter and kinder than anyone else in his novels), so I was immediately excited by this. Sadly, I am not in love with Bea. Anyway, Ozick then moves the plot of the Ambassadors to the fifties, and instead of Americans, makes it about Jewish Americans. I don't really care, although there are some possibly interesting bits about Jewish American young men falling in love with Jewish European displaced person middle aged women.

Now, the sillinesses: Americans in California are philistine idiots, even if they were once promising artists. Americans in Europe are post-romantic idiots, even if they were once promising scientists. Americans in New York, though, are all tremendously sensible. Even Europeans in New York are tremendously sensible. And this isn't just a 'New Yorkers know better' thing. The characters who stop by in New York become sensible for just as long as they're in New York. Suffice to say, as an Australian who has lived or presently lives in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, I find this sort of thing pretty irritating. I've never felt more insane and silly than the few days I've spent in New York. The literary disease of making everyone except the utterly, utterly stupid philistines consumers of great literature (including one character who's related to Proust) is in full flow.

Other than these points, it's meticulously, perfectly crafted, and has absolutely no emotional or intellectual interest or weight whatsoever. I imagine that Jewish Americans who live in New York will be very flattered. Otherwise you might want to stick to, say, The Ambassadors.

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LibraryThing member martimbe
Having thoroughly enjoyed Ozick's collection Dictation, I was eager to pick up one of her novels. This one, unfortunately, didn't do it for me. While there is no question that Ozick is a literary giant and has an unbelievable command of the English language, I was disappointed overall.

The writer in me didn't understand why the narrative voice was consistent regardless of the character whose point of view was being used. They were all so different, so I was expecting differences in the way they expressed themselves, even while it was all in third person.

The reader in me was disappointed that all the men were one- (or, at most, two-) dimensional louts, and the women weren't much more complex. Characters that have no redeeming characteristics are unlikable and easily dismissed (maybe this was intentional). Characters with no flaws are plastic and dull. The only possibly sympathetic character was Margaret, Julian and Iris's mother, and she only appeared briefly.

My biggest question, though, concerned the point of the story. In the end, what changed, what was accomplished? I didn't feel that what Leo did tied everything up or solved any underlying puzzle, so I questioned the use of my time in reading the book.

This does not diminish the high regard I have for the stories in Dictation, and I do highly recommend them.
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LibraryThing member AlisonY
Foreign Bodies opens with Bea, a middle-aged Amercian divorcee, ruining her first visit to Paris as she becomes embroiled in a wild goose chase to find her nephew (who is a stranger to her) on the back of her estranged, overbearing brother's demands. This opens up the premise of the novel, as Bea becomes reluctantly sucked in as the linchpin in her brother's family relations.

This was an OK read, but it failed to grab me in the way that I'd hoped it would.

3 stars - a bit bland for my liking.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I revere Cynthia Ozick (although sometimes I think I like the idea of her more than I like her actual work). This was just okay for me. I think I would have liked it more if I'd read it in tandem with The Ambassadors. Oddly, I found it less can't-put-it-down compelling than the other two books I read last week (The Irresistible Henry House and The Art Student's War), but it's the only one of the three I would ever want to reread.… (more)
LibraryThing member eaterofwords
Ozick is a wonderful, lyrical writer, and I've greatly enjoyed some of her other books. But this one, though it was a vivid study of place, didn't make me love it. I couldn't connect with the characters; while I don't expect to necessarily like whoever I'm reading about (though it's always excellent when I care about them despite their massive flaws), I need to care about the consequences of what they are doing. And nothing in this book made me commit that much. Granted, I have not read the Ambassadors and that may be why.
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LibraryThing member vplprl
In this masterful reshaping of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Ozick’s characters largely appear in crisis mode spurred by the realization they may have missed the best life has to offer. Darkly humourous and, at times, tragic Ozick’s tale is a revenge tale that brings happiness to no one.
LibraryThing member Iambookish
This book was just okay. The only reason I decided to read it was because it's shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize. I have to say that I'm pretty bummed that this book made the list while I feel other titles were more deserving of the honor.


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