November 2010 Indie Next List
— Betsey Detwiler, Buttonwood Books & Toys, Cohasset, MA
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“An absorbing achievement .º.º. A nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called ‘the real thing.’”—New York Times Book Review
Cynthia Ozick is a literary treasure. In her sixth novel, she retraces Henry James’s The Ambassadors and delivers a brilliant, utterly new American classic.
At the center of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to travel to Europe to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of his family. Over the course of a few months she travels from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, and finally facing her ex-husband to shake off his lingering sneers from decades past. As she inadvertently wreaks havoc in their lives, every one of them is irrevocably changed.
“Raucous, funny, ferocious, and tragic. A literary master, as James was, Ozick makes all those qualities fit together seamlessly, and with heartbreaking effect.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“Dazzling, even masterful.”—Entertainment Weekly
Praise For Foreign Bodies…
From Kirkus :
Julian Nachtigall, son of a tyrannical and imperious businessman, has gone to Paris but has shown no interest in returning home. While there, he links up with Lili, a Romanian expat about ten years his senior. Marvin, the father, is furious that Julian wants to waste his life playing around in nonserious matters (e.g., writing essays and observations of French life), so he sends his sister Bea (who’s Anglicized her name to Nightingale) to Paris to bring him to his senses as well as bring him home. Bea teaches English to high-school thugs who mock her love of Wordsworth and Keats, and Marvin has always held her in contempt for what in his eyes is her impractical and useless profession. Bea is complicit in tricking Marvin by sending Julian’s sister, Iris, to Paris instead. Iris is the apple of Marvin’s eye, a graduate student in chemistry and a promising scientist—in other words, all that Julian is not. But unbeknownst to Marvin, Iris is also happy to escape the imperatives of her authoritarian and oppressive father, so she goes to Paris more in the belief that she will stay there rather than bring her brother back home to California. Through flashbacks we learn of Bea’s unhappy and brief marriage to Leo Coopersmith, a composer who has pretensions of being the next Mahler, though he winds up something of a Hollywood hack, composing music for cartoons. We also meet Marvin’s long-suffering and brow-beaten wife, Margaret, whose neurasthenia is directly attributable to her husband’s iron-fisted despotism. Ozick brilliantly weaves together the multiple strands of her narrative through letters, flashbacks and Jamesian observations of social behavior.
This is superb, dazzling fiction. Ozick richly observes and lovingly crafts each character, and every sentence is a tribute to her masterful command of language.
*Starred Review* An extraordinary novel, loosely based on The Ambassadors—but Ozick (Dictation, 2008, etc.) manages to out-James the master himself.
"Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s greatest living writers... The "leaving" — of parents, of a spouse, of a child, of a family, of a country, of a continent, of all we thought our lives were for — follows every character through this brilliant story of how we mark others without knowing it, revealing how we are all tattooed by other people’s ambitions." - - Dara Horn, The Forward
"It is pure pleasure to encounter Cynthia Ozick: a morally brilliant comic master whose plots keep the pages turning and whose every sentence sings. Ozick's latest novel is billed as a 'photographic negative' of Henry James' The Ambassadors, with the same plot and the opposite meaning. Readers put off by James' baroque style have nothing to fear; part of Ozick's inversion of James is the crisp bite of her prose, and the story, ultimately, is fully hers." - Ms. Magazine
"...her vision of Europe and its tragic history is profound; and Lili is a creation of stunning depth. It is not Jamesian, it is Ozickian." -- Richard Eder, Boston Globe
"Ozick has achieved another success. Henry James -- the master -- would not be displeased." -- Miami Herald
"This is vintage Ozick; she is, perhaps, our most classical contemporary novelist, with a strong sense of literary heritage." -- LA Times
Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26). Bea Nightingale, a teacher in the Bronx in the nineteen-fifties, is in a rut when her peevish brother entreats her to retrieve his son and daughter from Paris, where they sought refuge from his oppressive ways. Ozick’s taut, sparkling novel is billed as a retelling of Henry James’s "The Ambassadors," and she transforms James’s cultivated Europe into a "scarred and exhausted" landscape teeming with the ghosts of war. Bea is a reluctant ambassador: at first she strives to do her brother’s bidding, but soon the "romantic agony" of Paris awakens feelings she has long kept subdued. Embroiled in a family drama, careful Bea meddles where once she stood idle, and she confronts a vexing paradox: "how hard it is to change one’s life" and "how terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others." -- The New Yorker
"What makes this novel such an absorbing achievement is not so much its slanted replications of the story line of 'The Ambassadors'...but the witty, fierce way in which it goes about upending the whole theme and meaning and stylistic manner of its revered precurser....'Foreign Bodies' is a nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called 'the real thing.'" - The New York Times Book Review
Four out of four stars:
"Who would dare to rewrite Henry James? Ozick proves up to the task, recasting The Ambassadors with Jewish Americans in post-war Paris—a city of displaced, battered souls. Asked by her brother to retrieve his errant son Julian from France, divorcée Beatrice acquiesces and becomes entangled in a web of deceptions. She’s like King Midas in reverse: All she touches turns to ash. A profound sadness lies just beneath the polished prose of this affecting tale." – S. C. - People Magazine
Mariner Books, 9780547577494, 272pp.
Publication Date: November 15, 2011
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Foreign Bodies is described as a “photographic negative” of Henry James’s classic novel The Ambassadors; in the New York Times, Charles McGrath described the similarities between the two books as “like someone pulling a glove inside-out.” How does Ozick achieve this? What do you think might have been her motivation? And what do you think of re-writing a classic American novel?
Foreign Bodies begins in 1952; the war has ravaged Europe, and displaced persons (DP’s) struggle to find new homes outside of their devastated countries. James’s book was written in 1903, before even the hint of the First World War. Describe how the relationship between the US and Europe changed in the fifty years between James’s novel and the setting of Foreign Bodies, and then the next fifty years, between when Foreign Bodies was set and when it was written.
Each of the characters in the book has a different relationship to Europe. What is Marvin’s relationship to Europe, or what he imagines of Europe? Bea is a teacher, a lover of literature and art; what does she see in Europe? What about Julian, a sensitive but feckless young man? And Lili, a character who can be seen as a true victim of Europe? Do you feel that any of these characters’ ideas hold more truth than others?
Reread Ozick’s descriptions of the two types of visitors to Paris on pages 2–3. Then discuss Julian and Lili as each representing one of these types, and their relationship; what does each see in the other? How do other characters see them? Bea says about Julian, “A boy with a wife was a man, and a man with a wife could not be left to drown” (p. 81). How does Lili help make Julian a man? How does Lili’s presence affect how Bea deals with Julian?
Lili’s co-worker Kleinman reveals he’s planning to move to Texas. How do the European characters view the United States? Are their ideas accurate?
Besides the trans-Atlantic divide, Foreign Bodies explores the trans-continental divide, specifically the differences between New York and California. Why did both Marvin Nachtigall and Leo Coopersmith leave New York for California? What do you see as the major differences between the East coast and West coast during the time of the novel? What about today?
A major theme in James’s novel is the conflict between duty and personal desire. Where do you see this conflict arise in Foreign Bodies? Which characters are doing what they want to do, and which are doing what they think they should do? Who fares better?
Bea’s role as “ambassador” is reluctant and ineffective, at first; she repeatedly fails to accomplish the tasks she undertakes for Marvin. But she is not powerless. Discuss the ways that Bea affects change in the book, in both her own life and in the lives of other characters. Are these changes always for the better?
Repeatedly throughout the book, we are reminded that Bea Nightingale changed her name from Nachtigall, whereas the much more self-hating Marvin kept his name. Describe these characters’ relationships to their Jewishness. How do their senses of themselves as Jewish or not-Jewish inform their actions in the book? One of Julian’s poems describes the DP’s in Paris as “pigeons in the Marais.” What is Julian’s relationship to his Jewishness?
What is the role of art in Bea’s life? She married a musician at a young age; how did she see herself, and what were her ideas for her own life, when she met Leo Coopersmith? She told him she wanted to write a dictionary of clouds, a catalog of things impermanent and changeable; she said she wanted to make her mark. How did Bea’s ideas for her life change? By the end of the book, have they changed again?
What role do the two grand pianos play in the book? When Iris taps one of the keys of the piano in Bea’s apartment, what does she set in motion? That one note from Iris has its counterpart with another scene later in the book. What does that scene set into motion?
The tug between art versus science, and the life of the mind versus business, come up throughout the book. When do you see this conflict arise between the different couples, and in other relationships, in the book?
The novel is, in part, epistolary. How do these letters function in the book? How do we get to know the characters through them? In Bea’s letters, we see her prevarications and her evasions; how does the knowledge of Bea’s deceitfulness affect how we see her? Margaret dies with a letter from Bea in her pocket; what did the letter say? What did the letter reveal to Marvin? Is Bea at all responsible for Margaret’s death?
The figure of Margaret Nachtigall (née Breckinridge) in her “rest home” conjures the trope of “the madwoman in the attic”—a figure whose presence in 19th century fiction represented the male writer’s fear of an “untamed” women and his need to keep her locked away from the rest of his world. Had Margaret come to threaten Marvin? On page 91, Ozick writes “The mild madwoman mildly incarcerated was all at once taking on a kind of sanity; it swept over Bea that it was the sanity of illumination.” What does Bea come to understand about Margaret in this scene? Is Margaret truly mad?
What do the physical descriptions of these characters tell us about them? How do their sexualities inform who they are?
The book ends with Leo sending Bea the score of his symphony, “The Nightingale’s Thorn, Symphony in B Minor,” which Bea reads as “Bea Minor.” Are we meant to feel that this symphony is Leo’s masterwork? An act of revenge? What do you make of the novel’s last line: “Even so, in the long, long war with Leo, wasn’t it Bea who’d won?” Do you think Bea won? Won what?
Who are the “foreign bodies” of the title?