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3.2 out of 5 stars
27
3.2 out of 5 stars
Foreign Bodies
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on 5 July 2012
Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies

The plot is borrowed from Henry James's The Ambassadors, but there the resemblance ends. This is a book that was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (2012) and it comes with many commendations, including The Times `s assurance that Ozick's eleventh novel is `breathtaking ... a superb story about the reversal of world order and identities.' I'm inclined to agree with the Guardian that `Ozick is possessed of a voice distinctly her own', but when that voice grates on the reader's nerves as this one does most would prefer Henry James's. True, someone should have taught Henry James how to write simple English, just as someone should have told Dickens that sentimentality in fiction is nauseating. Never mind the Orange Prize nomination, the book must be a contender for the greatest number of rhetorical questions in a work of fiction.

The plot, like the prose, is somewhat convoluted, but, to simplify, it deals with the contrast between a heavy father, Marvin Nachtigall, a self-made man of business with no time for aesthetic sensibilities and his no good son, Julien, who escapes from American materialism to the softer, easygoing life of Paris. The angry father then orders his sister, Bea, to bring his son back. When this venture fails his daughter, Iris, repeats the abortive attempt. Both women, however, become seduced by Parisian culture, although Aunt Bea is at first rejected by her niece, who shelters her brother and his new waif-wife, Lili, a Romanian refugee.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of Bea, who, as her name implies goes about doing good - or, rather, trying to - much to the fury of her control freak brother Marvin, an impotent rage-filled observer, whose ambassadors consistently fail him. There are constant letters between the two, as Marvin vents his frustration not only with his son, but the whole Communist-thinking world - watch out little Lili, who has stolen the useless Julien!

My main quarrel with the novel is with its excruciating prose, often disguised as internal monologue. Open any page at random and, no matter which character has the viewpoint, you find whole swathes of portentous twaddle, such as Lili's reflections on her man-boy husband: `She looked at the boy: a bodily gaze, every pore an eye. A longing struck her - a pang. His head had an unexpected beauty, even in the tender curve of the full chin. His flesh held the weight of his feeling; his appetite for meat, she suddenly knew, was a hunger for feeling. She recognised him as someone she had missed; misjudged; passed over. And she had inflicted on him a pitiless blight. Her hand was as gory as Lady Macbeth's. Her hand was a guillotine.' This is Romantic Fiction at its worst and Henry James would surely find it cringe-making.

However, this novel contains much to admire - the scenes with the bullied wife, Margaret and her final demise are beautifully handled, but the demerits of the book detract: wavering point of view between omniscient, internal monologue and oratio obliqua; the laying on of imagery as with a trowel (`A heaving sea brooded in her head ... her head ... waxworks ...or ... or ... or ... something volcanic.' [Author's ellipses]); a plethora of one-word sentences or non-sentences; and the constantly hysterical overwriting. It's certainly a mile away from The Master.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 October 2010
"Foreign Bodies" is the sixth novel by Cynthia Ozick, the highly-respected award-winning American author. With it, she has set herself an interesting challenge: to use the plot of Henry James' The Ambassadors - which he is said to have considered his best work; but to turn the plot around, giving it new meanings. And she's chosen to set the book among Jewish-Americans in the early 1950's, the McCarthy years of loyalty oaths.

Protagonist of the story is Bea Nightingale, fiftyish, divorced New York City English teacher, who has more or less put her life on hold since her divorce. She's estranged from her rich, social climbing, nasty brother Marvin, who lives in Los Angeles, California, and from her ex-husband, who lives rather near him. But she gets an urgent letter from her brother: to please go to Paris, France, and bring back his errant son Julian. She finds Julian, though rather young, married to Lili, an older refugee from Eastern Europe. This trip opens Bea's floodgates: she finds herself jetting from New York to Paris to Hollywood. She becomes more involved than she's ever been with her brother, his wife Margaret, his son, and daughter Iris, and even her ex. And unexpected things keep popping.

Ozick has here done a tour de force, producing a novel that stands very well on its own, and is, in fact, a pleasure to read. It's witty, concise, full of excellent description of very particular people and places. Paris has rarely looked better. Furthermore, I didn't find it at all heavy going, and it kept my interest. I am not familiar with the Henry James work that inspired her, so I really can't speak to the relationship between these books. Ozick is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have won four O.Henry first prizes. You might find yourself in the mood for this tasty lagniappe; or I can think of people who'd welcome it as a gift.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 31 July 2012
It is the 1950s and Bea Nightingale has taken leave from her teaching job in New York to visit Europe. Her dominating brother Marvin has inveigled her into finding his wayward son Julian who is "somewhere in Paris" and to persuade him to return home. She looks for him and fails in the task. She returns to New York and expects that she will hear no more from Marvin or the rest of his family. But Marvin is not put off so easily and attempts to bully Bea into travelling to France once more. The fact that she has a job to do is of no interest to him.

Bea has had little to do with her brother and his family for years but in the course of the book their lives overlap continually. Also emerging from long ago is her husband, a self-centred man who has found some success as a writer of film music.

Foreign Bodies begins superbly and I was immediately drawn into the shabby post-war atmosphere of Paris. It was easy to understand that Julian preferred a bohemian life with some vague ideas about writing rather than be in California in the stultifying company of his father. However as the book progressed I became more and more irritated by the characters. Bea is obviously a bright and independent woman so it seems odd that she didn't just tell her brother to get out of her life. Similarly she seems to be prepared to put up with incredible rudeness from both her ex-husband and her nephew and niece.

The writing, however, is terrific and apart from loathing most of the characters I enjoyed the book. I assume that the "foreign bodies" are not the Parisians or even Romanian Lili - but her own flesh and blood.
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on 3 December 2012
"In the early fifties of the last century a ferocious heat wave assaulted Europe". So begins the second chapter. Very apt, as a ferocious heatwave has assaulted the prose in this overwritten, overwrought &, yes, overheated book. Strangely in view of this writing style the overall impression is of lack of feeling; Oziuck piles up words on words, metaphor on metaphor, wringing the language for every last variant of its expressive capabilities, approaching an idea, an emotion, an event from myriad directions; and yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it one has very little sense of these characters as real living people, & consequently cares little about them. Physical descriptions of them tend towards the caricature, with a tendency to alight on the physically unattractive or ugly aspect, and their actions, while perhaps not unbelievable in themselves, tend to be rendered extreme, hysterical by the overblown way they are described.

Set against the extravagences of the language is the use of an elliptical style, particularly but not exclusively in dialogue (if that is the right word) where people make gnomic utterances whose meaning is opaque to the reader. People may talk like this in reality but as used here it is confusing & irritating & serves to add to the sense of unbelievability. Equally off-putting is Ozick's habit of describing an event at great length & then in the next chapter momentarily turning back time, approaching the same event from another character's point of view.
There might be nothing wrong with these various devices if they weren't such a mish-mash, failing to achieve any sense of coherence. I can TELL myself that this kind of fracturing is supposed to mirror the themes of exile, estrangement & displacement; that the hyperbole is that Jewish extravagence of feeling & language about which they often mock themselves; but that is purely an intellectual rationale on my part, & does not work as part of the reading experience.

Until I read it here I had not realised that this was a modern rendering of the Ambassadors. It is a long time since I read Henry James but perhaps this explains her use of clause-heavy structures. As far as I remember, although his sentences can be hard work they are clear & rational, quite the opposite of Ozick's visceral narrative (her figurative language makes heavy use of 'blood & guts' metaphor, in all kinds of context). I suppose that must be deliberate, to chime in with the very different era, but again this seems to be an intellectual exercise, rather than contributing to the book's coherence.
The ending of the book is silly, stretching credulity & giving the impression of being shoe-horned on for want of any better idea. Like the people & events throughout the book it is buried under the weight of linguistic virtuosity, in this case at least, I suspect, to try to impose upon it a signifance which it does not have.
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on 20 June 2013
The story is set in the 1950s and switches between New York and Paris. It follows the main character, Bea as she goes to Paris to "rescue" a nephew she barely knows. Cynthia Ozick has a unique style and her characters all have distinct voices. It is well written with lots of descriptive prose. I did like the main character, Bea Nightingale, although at times I wanted to shake her. There are rave reviews for this book, but I'm not sure her style of prose is for me.
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on 20 December 2012
I liked this book although it does explore the problems of
separation of families in America which can often result from
a desire to achieve or to escape.

The narrator of course comes off well out of all the characters,
most of whom seemed pretty shallow.

I was not particularly looking forward to this read but the author won
me over completely.
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on 27 November 2012
I have a very strange feeling that something, somewhere in this book has passed me by. Well written, but....what's the point? There are readers who think this book is wonderful. Please feel free to enlighten me.
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on 1 July 2012
Set in the 1950s, this is a take on Henry James's novel, The Ambassadors. It is the story of Bea - a dowdy, middle-aged, divorcee schoolteacher who goes to Paris in search of her nephew, Julian. Julian's father, Marvin, is a wealthy businessman who has overcome the disadvantages faced by Jews in a post-war America. Despite being estranged from each other for many years, Marvin asks (demands) that Bea drops everything and flies to Paris in search of his son and bring him home. The young man that Bea finds is waiting tables and has hooked up with a Romanian refugee, Lili, who he goes on to marry. The contrast between a booming post-war America and a broken post-war Paris is stark and Julian has no interest in leaving Lili and returning home.

Having failed in her mission, Bea becomes more involved in the lives of her long-lost relatives. Marvin's daughter, Iris, is his protegee. She has a talent for his line of business and is torn between a need to lead her own life and a genuine interest in working with her father. Marvin's society wife, Margaret, is in a sanatorium and is a tragic figure, Bea makes contact with her behind Marvin's back with disastrous consequences. Finally, Bea's ex-husband, Leo, now a successful composer working in Hollywood, also comes back on the scene, making both parties confront their past life together.

This is a complex novel that is enjoyable to read. Although heavily influenced by The Ambassadors it is not necessary to have read this first - I haven't - and it stands alone as a novel in its own right. Whilst this is undoubtedly a well-written book, I felt that the many strands meant I couldn't get to know the characters in any depth. Julian and Iris were so aloof as to be impenetrable and Bea's motivations for doing her brother's bidding were unclear. The style and characters reminded me of Great House by Nicole Krauss (and not just because of the Jewish connection), an Orange shortlistee in 2011, but I felt the writing and depth of emotion conveyed was far superior in Krauss's novel.

So this was a good read but I think it fell short by trying to do too much. The subplot of Bea's marriage was unnecessary but the issue of Julian's marriage could have been explored in more depth. I don't think this book is for everyone - I did enjoy it but the story hasn't stayed with me.
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on 26 February 2015
Ozick's usual brilliant self, and her usual concerns: here how the Holocaust has transmogrified a family of second and third generation witnesses and survivors into a medley of familiar and less familiar characters. But the book goes far beyond Holocaust traces,(and should appeal to intelligent readers, demanding no particular religious background). Ozick manages to be both humorous and tragic, often in the same beat.The protagonist, Bea, has a steady unblinking eye…she holds a non-functional and distant family together, at least in her insights.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 August 2011
We are told that this novel is some kind of a take on Henry James' The Ambassadors. I haven't read that book, and the reviews I have seen on it suggest that it heavy going, so I decided not to read that first. The only links for me are therefore (1) my knowledge that James wrote about Americans in Paris (as Ozick does in this book; the setting is in the early 1950s), (2) the fact that the central character, Bea Nachtigall, is herself (or is taken to be) an ambassador for her horrible brother Marvin, and (3) that despite classy writing, it is in places over-written and heavy going.

All the principal characters are damaged. Most of them are believable: Marvin, the self-made prosperous businessman, a choleric bully but insecure because of his unwanted Jewish background, and an oppressive husband and father; his mentally sick but originally Establishment trophy wife Margaret; their son Julian, an ineffectual drop-out in Paris; Lili, a war-damaged refugee from Romania; Julian's sister Iris, who also needs to get away from her father. But it is Bea, the pivotal character, whom I find it hard to believe in. I simply cannot understand the motivation that made her accept the bidding of her brother, whom she had not seen for years, to go to Paris to bring Julian, whom she also scarcely knew, back to the United States. Having undertaken the mission, she embarks on a course of deceit against her brother, concealing facts from him and lying, too. She cannot decide whether she is justified or not in what she is doing. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for her; but I was exasperated by her behaviour which leads to immense complications. A subplot is the story of her divorce from Leo, a composer of film music: I don't understand the point at the end of the book, which again involves him.

There are several epistolatory exchanges in the novel: some of these letters I cannot believe in either. So I find the book a disconcerting mixture of well-observed realism and of artifice.
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