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Plenty of style, not much substance
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.