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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Cynthia Ozick, author of The Shawl and Trust: A Novel, two of my favorite books, has written a gem of a novel in Foreign Bodies. A slithering and taut comedy of errors, this book examines issues of betrayal and trust, literal and emotional exile, regret and rage, Judaism in post-World War II Europe and the meaning of art in one's life. While based on themes similar to Henry James' The Ambassadors, this novel is distinctly and uniquely Ozick's.

It is 1952 and 48 year-old Bea Nightingale has been teaching English to boys in a technical school for decades. They are more interested in other things than Shakespeare and Dickens but Bea gives it her best shot each semester. Once briefly married to Leo, a composer and pianist, Bea has been divorced for decades and Leo has gone on to do very well as a composer of scores for Hollywood movies. After Leo left Bea, he also left his grand piano which takes up a huge place in Bea's small Manhattan apartment and symbolizes several things to her - regret, the importance of art, and betrayal. Leo was supposed to pick up the piano and never did. It has sat untouched for years, an homage to Bea's anger and loss, along with its symbolic meaning of art as creation.

One day, out of the blue, Bea gets a letter from her semi-estranged brother, Marvin, asking her to to find his son Julian, an ex-pat who took a college year abroad and has not returned after three years. Marvin is a legend in his own mind, an arrogant, controlling, rude man who has made his fortune in airline parts in California. His wife Margaret, is a blue-blood who Marvin met at Princeton when he was there on scholarship. She is now in a rehab center ostensibly because the loss of Julian has sent her over the edge. Julian was always the lost child, the one who Marvin considered a loss. He had his head in the clouds and his desire was to write though Marvin wanted him to become a scientist. He has one other child, Iris, who is on the mark and following Marvin's goals for her to become a scientist. Marvin tells Bea in his letter, that he knows she is going on holiday to Paris and he'd like her to look up Julian and get him to come home. He feels that she must do this for what else does she do in her life but teach thugs. (As a matter of clarity, Marvin's last name is Nachtigal and Bea's is Nightingale. She changed her name because she thought it would be easier for her students to pronounce).

On Bea's trip to Paris, she makes two minor attempts at the end of her trip to contact Julian but is unsuccessful. He has already left his apartment and his where-abouts are unknown. Bea returns to New York and gets a scathing letter from Marvin all but ripping her to shreds. How she is able to stand his abuse is a comment on her own sense of self-deprecation. Marvin has a new idea. His daughter Iris is close to Julian and knows him well. He will send Iris to Bea's for a few days and she will tell Bea all about Julian and then Bea will again venture to Paris 'knowing' Julian and better able to find him. What ends up happening however is the beginning of a long line of betrayals for which Bea is responsible. Iris does come to New York but instead of Bea going to Paris, Iris goes and Bea makes up a story to Marvin about what is happening. Whatever Bea touches comes back inside-out.

Iris writes to Bea and tells her she plans to stay in Paris. Bea goes back to Paris, this time in search of Iris as well as Julian. What Bea finds in Europe is that Julian is married to Lili, a Romanian holocaust survivor several years older than him. He works part-time in cafes and lives on the money that Marvin sends him. Julian and Iris want nothing to do with Bea and give her the cold shoulder. Instead of returning to Manhattan, Bea impulsively flies to California and contacts her ex-husband, starting off a chain of events that leads to artistic obsession. She also contacts Margaret in her rest home which also leads to dire consequences.

Bea's betrayals are numerous and though often done with good intentions, end up with horrible repercussions. She is passive in her life but feels like she is able to take control when it comes to others. She has this grandiose sense of what is right for those around her. Bea gives a lot of thought to exile and sense of place and these themes resonate throughout the book. While Julian has chosen to exile himself from his father emotionally and as an ex-patriate, Marvin then chooses to exile Julian from his life unless Julian is willing to take a bribe and come home. Bea again intervenes and betrays Marvin. It is hard to see what is going on in Bea's mind but there are a lot of deep feelings, especially anger, rage, and regret. While her actions might seem magnanimous to her, they often seem controlling, misguided and horrific to the reader.

Cynthia Ozick has created a small treasure with this novel. Its twists and turns, keeping the reader enthralled and emotionally transfixed. We are led through a maze of human frailty, often disguised as strength, as we are swept away with the undercurrents of duplicity and displacement. This is a must-read for Ozick fans and, for those not familiar with her writing, a good place to start.
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on August 10, 2011
After I finished "Foreign Bodies," I read an article in the Times Literary Supplement that said this about Cynthia Ozick: "Parading her erudition like a peacock, the owner of a self-conscious style...." Understand that this description is meant as a compliment. I wish I had read it before I picked up the book. I found the story of Beatrice Nightingale and her thoroughly horrible family to be very tough going. And when I got there, I didn't know where I was.

The novel begins with a brief letter from Bea to her brother, Marvin, describing a trip to Europe from which she has just returned and hinting at something else--trying to track down someone named Julian, returning a $500 check. Chapter 2 describes that trip--Paris during a terrible heat wave, her search for Julian, her nephew. She doesn't know what he looks like. What is that all about? It was a promising beginning, and as another reviewer here promised, I was drawn in.

But as the story develops, and we learn about why Bea is looking for Julian and why a huge chunk of her 2 1/2-room apartment is taken up with a grand piano, I was stumped. None of the characters ever rang true for me--they seemed more like props than like flesh-and-blood people. Bea's brother is a wealthy manufacturer, in love with money and the power he believes it gives him over people. (Bea proves the point by allowing him to shame her into turning right around and going back to Paris to find Julian because she failed the first time. I found this awfully hard to swallow.) Marvin's wife--a WASP he married for her money and pedigree--is your basic crazy woman in the attic. The son is rude, boorish, lazy. His wife is misery personified. The story kept promising to reach some sort of climax, but it kept failing--moving instead down more and more pathways with more and more pale characters (Dr. Maldonado. Really? Did we need a whole chapter on this guy, who is barely mentioned again?) that just slow the narrative momentum to no purpose that I could find. And the novel ends on a note that just doesn't feel earned.

The language sizzles, the story is tepid. Ozick clearly loves language, and she definitely "parades her erudition like a peacock," especially in the final chapter. For example: "Thick block of paper. Heavy. Big! What must one call such a stack? A ream? A bale? A quire? (A choir? 'Chorus of little people.')" I found that it got in the way of my reading the story--and I think it also gets in the way of Ozick's telling the story.

A bit less erudition and a bit more attention to character development would have been welcome.
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VINE VOICEon September 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Foreign Bodies" is the first Ozick I've read, and I was immediately struck by how beautifully written it is. Ozick uses a lot of imagery and symbolism in this book, but it's never overdone or forced. The story is a retelling of Henry James' "The Ambassadors," a book that I recall as impenetrable, which impression I re-experienced when I tried to read both books to compare. Bea, the main character, is asked--or more accurately, ordered--by her boorish brother Marvin to travel to Europe to reclaim a wayward son. Bea leaves her job and goes, and experiences the awakening to Europe and its ambiguities that James' first hero does. Bea finds herself sympathetic to Julian, the son, and his lover. The trip finally allows her to stand up to her brother and shed the memories of her own past that have kept her in suspension for a good part of her life. Unfortunately I found it difficult to understand Bea. Why anyone would do anything requested by a guy like Marvin? He belittles her and her work, and says she has to make the trip to find Julian because he, Marvin, is far too busy and important. And why would anyone keep the massive grand piano that her ex-husband left in her tiny NY apartment when he left? She's unable to get rid of it to reclaim her own space, even after many years. Ultimately I couldn't understand how these people had such a hold on her when they lived far away and had little to do with her daily life. Others in my book club, however, were not as judgmental, and loved the book. The 3 stars is my own opinion; 4 is the rating that would likely be given by my group.
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on August 23, 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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on July 15, 2011
I have to agree with many of the things said by readers who didn't like the book, such as unsympathetic characters; I've been thinking hard about why I liked the novel quite a lot. Ozick's prose is enjoyable. While sometimes employing those complex expressions which make the reader take pause (see example below), there is more than enough simple prose so that the reader is not overwhelmed. The characters all have wounded psyches, but still manage to carry on and display loyalty as they see it. While the novel bogs down during Beatrice's 2nd visit to Paris (the first was on vacation), there are enough plot twists to otherwise keep things moving.

A theme gradually emerges; as Beatrice says at the end: "How hard it is to change one's life. ....How terrifying simple to change the lives of others". Beatrice would have been well advised to follow the adage, above all do no harm. What many readers seem to miss, is that Beatrice, despite her success as a teacher and her air of competence, is definitely one of the wounded characters. Further, judging by the Wikipedia summary of "The Ambassadors" by Henry James, the similarities between the novels are not very important

Prose example. "Impulse may have brought her here; yet impulse was the frail carapace of what felt long calculated. Or if not calculated, then stored and readied".
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Bea has traveled to Europe, and has been asked by her estranged brother to find his son Julian. Bea's efforts on his behalf are begrudging and without success. The book takes the point of view of Bea and her family as the quest is enlarged.
Post war Paris is exposed to us as it touches the lives of Julian, his displaced persin wife, Marvin's sister Iris, and the people with whom they interact. Ozick sees a Paris filled with expat riots wishing to find Hemingway's and Gertrude stein's world. Displaced persons fill the underworld, and Paris, which paints itself the benefactor, wishes only to see the end of "those people". My favorite character is Lili, Jason's wife, who is a Jewish woman who has escaped the war but who has lost her entire family and bears the wound of those who would have killed her as well. She sees the people of this book, and allows us to see them.
Bea is the center of the story and moves the enmeshment along. I don't like Bea. In her rage and passivity, she deals great damage to those who encounter her. Wrong has been done to her, but she convinces herself she is the selfless martyr.
I put this book down four times. I found the story dysphoric. I was angry with many of the characters many times. But the writing had something to say, and the book comes back to mind frequently. Ozick can write, and she is worth reading.
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HALL OF FAMEon April 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Foreign Bodies", Cynthia Ozick's latest novel, is a brilliant twist on Henry James's "The Ambassadors". Set nearly three-quarters of century after James's novel, immediately after World War II, "Foreign Bodies" can be seen as the former's mirror image. However, that would be a most simplistic - if not derivative - means of describing it, especially when Ozick has created one of the most memorable characters I have encountered in recent contemporary fiction; Bea Nightingale. Simultaneously irascible and likeable, Nightingale is a veritable force of nature, whose presence disrupts the lives of those around her. She's sent on an errand by her estranged brother to look after his son, her ne'er-do-well nephew, in postwar Paris. There she meets not only her nephew, but his lover, an Eastern European refugee. How she becomes involved with her nephew and his lover is one I'll keep a secret, but it is a secret well worth uncovering via Ozick's elegant ear for dialogue and sparse, but lyrical, descriptive prose. Hers is definitely among the most remarkable literary achievements I have read within recent years. Without question, Ozick has written a modern American literary classic that pays ample homage to its predecessor in spirit, if not in its literary style and content, and yet it is a classic that demonstrates her own unique, quite captivating, literary voice.
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on September 13, 2013
I picked this up because I always like reading about expats and travelers and I'm a bit of a Francophile. Add to that Cynthia Ozick's polished writing... and yet it was flawed for me because I wasn't enamored by any of the characters - there was no one to like. They were mostly spoiled and difficult Americans with the exception of Bea, the protagonist (but she isn't that exciting).

The plot revolves around a dysfunctional family and held my interest, but not my devotion. It portrays family expectancies and betrayals.

I kept thinking it really WAS written in the 1950's because Ozick captured the era so well. In the end however the book lagged for me.

By Cinda C. MacKinnon the author of A PLACE IN THE WORLD
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on January 31, 2011
Foreign Bodies
I did not understand the characters in this book. I could not identify with them, and this made reading the book difficult. At the same time, I found each and every one of the main characters fascinating. I look for epiphanies, for defining moments, and certainly each of the characters experienced such moments. So I would say I had a love/hate relationship with Foreign Bodies. In fact, they were foreign to me. I wanted to slap Leo, and tell him to deliver his own messages. I had quarrels with each of the characters. Yet, I could not put this book down. While I kept hoping for a change, the characters were true to themselves. Read this book if you dare, but do not look for a best friend here.
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on January 22, 2013
I have probably read most of James twice, so I recognized Ozick's reworking of his classic plot, and also the prose that had Jamesian echoes, but that wasn't enough to engage me. Other reviewers have noted the unlikeable characters and the lack of believable motivation. The whole thing left a very sour taste in my mouth. I was irritated by anachronisms and impossibilities. Marvin says "there's nothing out of the ordinary with junior year abroad" but I'm not even sure the term existed in 1952 - it certainly wasn't ordinary for a clueless kid from L.A. Bea appears to take a direct flight from Paris to L.A. - again, in 1952?? And how the heck did Julian and Lilli afford two plane tickets to N.Y.? If they had been able to scrape up a fare, it would have been for a very unpleasant sea voyage. And how does a high school teacher with her own full schedule of classes cover for another teacher for a week or more? These aren't minor quibbles - if the characters aren't placed in a real world they don't live and breathe for the reader. Ozick is successful enough to afford a competent fact-checker. This sort of thing is all too common in contemporary novels - does anyone else notice??
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