“Foreign Bodies” by Cynthia Ozick

“Foreign Bodies” by Cynthia Ozick    (2010) – 255 pages

“Foreign Bodies” is an updating of the Henry James novel “The Ambassadors”.  In  James’ “Ambassadors”, a United States business magnate sends his ‘ambassador’ over to Paris, France to convince the magnate’s son to come back to the States.  When this ‘ambassador’ gets to Paris, he finds that the magnate’s son is having the time of his life delighting in the refined elegance of the French culture and a romantic attachment, and the son does not want to leave.  Cynthia Ozick’s novel takes place about fifty years later in 1952, and things have vastly changed.   France has endured two devastating wars.  Uprooted people, many who have lost family members in the war, are wandering from city to city in Europe, and many ultimately end up in Paris.  Paris, far from being the city of enlightenment, has become the city of darkness and decadence. 

 In Ozick’s novel, the ‘ambassador’ sent to Paris is the magnate’s sister, Bea Nightingale, who hasn’t seen her brother for many years and has never seen her nephew.  She travels from New York to Paris to California and back to Paris.  “Foreign Bodies” starts with that jaunty feel I’ve come to expect from Cynthia Ozick.  Some of its short chapters are a tourist’s view of Paris, some are straight narration, and some are short letters between characters in the novel.  I like the variety that moves the novel along.

 For about the first one hundred pages, the novel entertained quite well.  After that, my problem with “Foreign Bodies” was that none of the main characters intrigued me enough to sustain my interest.  Instead of a jaunty ride, the novel became a grueling slog during the second half.   Let’s look at the characters.  First there is Bea who is a vocational school teacher who is mainly just an observer anyhow, but not a perceptive or insightful observer.  Also there is the business magnate father who in all ways is an obnoxious loudmouth.  He is so crudely drawn, that he could be a caricature. A caricature implies humor, but there is no humor in “Foreign Bodies”.  There is the neurasthenic mother.  Then there is the feckless son  (Does ‘feckless’ mean without ‘feck’?) who is rude and aimless with no redeeming qualities.   The son’s girlfriend who is a refugee from Romania is pretty much in a zombie state from losing her family during the war.  Then there is the son’s sister who seems to just hang around.  Finally there is Bea’s ex-husband from whom she has been divorced for about twenty years.  He wanted to be a composer, but ended up doing what he is told providing Hollywood movies with music background.  

 The trouble with “Foreign Bodies” is that the main character Bea Nightingale hasn’t seen any of these people for many years, and she doesn’t seem to care any more about them than I do which is very little. 

I think the best format for Cynthia Ozick is the long short story or the novella such as “The Shawl”.  Also “The Puttermesser Papers” showed she could handle humor well, and “Heir to the Glimmering World” proved that she could sustain a complete novel.   However “Foreign Bodies” does not work.   It feels more constructed than lived.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting review Tony. There are so many novels which begin off well and then lose steam. When a reader quits relating or taking an interest in the characters, then I guess there’s no salvaging. I guess I’ll give this one a miss.

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    • Hi Deboshree,
      Yes, there are so many novels that start off well and then go astray. And this is a novel I really wanted to like; I’ve admired Ozick’s other work for a long time.

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  2. When you listed all the characters in your review not one of them jumped out at me which I guess says it all. Books can go like that which is a great shame.

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    • Hi Jessica,
      Somehow I think Ozick got caught up in reversing the constructs of Hemry James’ novel, she forgot to make the characters appealing to her readers. On the other hand, Thomas Mallon, a novelist I much admire also, wrote a glowing review of “Foreign Bodies”. That’s the way it goes.

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  3. I was quasi-planning to read this after cracking The Ambassadors, which is long overdue. This suitably lowers my expectations, at least. There are other Ozicks I should probably read first at any rate.

    There was, apparently, an old Scottish word “feck” which was short for “effect” and meant worth or value. I say we bring feck back.

    Good review. I know what not to expect…..

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    • Hi Kerry,
      Scottish, you say. I never would have guessed, probably would have guessed German. I want to read “The Ambassadors” too, give the late novels of Henry James another try. I’ve tried reading “Portrait of a Lady”, but gave up after about 50 or so pages

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  4. That’s an interesting point about character ambivalence. I suppose the reader can’t really be expected to care much about other characters in the book if the main character him/herself doesn’t either. Based on this review, it seems to me that Foreign Bodies just tries to do too much, especially if you say Ozick’s talent shines in her shorter works…

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    • Hi Bibliobio,
      I can’t say for sure what happened, but I can guess. I think Ozick got so intent on reversing the story of the Ambassadors, that she didn’t think about how interesting the characters would be to the readers. It is unusual, because I’ve enjoyed nearly all the rest of her work, her stories especially. You’re right about trying to do too much; she introduces new characters even in the last quarter of the book which didn’t work for me.

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  5. Sorry to hear this didn’t work for you! I’m a huge Ozick fan but, oddly, haven’t been drawn to this one. I appreciate your review.

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  6. Hi Jeanie F,
    I have read just about everything Cynthia Ozick wrote, and this is the only book of hers that has disappointed me. Just about every author has a couple that don’t stand up to the resr. Of course it’s all subjective.

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  7. While skillfully imitating his literary style Ozick uses James s framework to introduce a set of ideas that are entirely her own. And where James s Strether is reluctant in his middle age despite many temptations to change the course of his life Ozick s Bea seeks to do exactly that.Even when Ozick departs from James s original plot her writing is full of Jamesian allusions. Elsewhere Iris refers to an American girl who has married a real-life Italian prince in a pairing of characters that might be familiar to readers of James s Roderick Hudson and The Princess Casamassima. The Paris that Ozick so eloquently describes is however far removed from the glittering capital of culture that appears in so much of James s work.

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