Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

This was my first introduction to Cynthia Ozick. I read two reviews of Foreign Bodies; both said it was a clever re-working of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, and both assured me that one could read, understand, and enjoy the former without having read the latter.

So, I read and enjoyed Foreign Bodies in a couple of days. Did I understand it? Hmm…I think so. Although I must admit, I feel like I’m missing… something.

Quick plot summary: It’s 1952 and Marvin Nachtigall has asked his sister Bea to interrupt her European vacation in order to locate Marvin’s wayward son Julian and make him return to his studies in America and the life Marvin feels he should lead.

Bea does as she is asked, sort of. Resenting her horrid brother’s presumptive attitude (and he really is horrid), she does locate Julian, now living in Paris with his older and traumatized wife, a Romanian refugee, but she makes little effort to repatriate him. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands.

Bea, who has been virtually absent from her brother’s adult life and the lives of his children, now interacts not only with Julian, but also with Julian’s narcissistic sister Iris and their mother Margaret, who has been shunted off for a stay at an asylum. (Evidently she can’t take the strain of missing her son for so long, but the reader understands that she must really want to escape her horrid husband.) Bea also interacts, not only through memories but also in reality, with her former husband, Leo, another semi-horrid person.

Interacting is big for Bea, because she hasn’t done much of it (that the reader can see) up until now. A life passing one by, or living the life that others have chosen for you, or being an observer of the lives of others–are all themes running through this novel, and Bea falls into all three categories. Until now. Now Bea asserts herself, and the consequences are…startling.

I liked this book, or I should say I liked Ozick’s writing. It’s sparkling. And inventive. And captivating. It kind of dazzles. However, I can’t help feeling that I came away from the book with an appreciation of the surface of the story, but not the depths. As horrid as many of the characters were, I wanted to know more about them, and maybe in not such a clever way as Ozick delivers them.

Somehow I feel (and I could be wrong) that if I read The Ambassadors, I just might gain greater access to Foreign Bodies. Or perhaps I should have the members of my Literary Masters book groups read it, and together we can “dig deep” into it and see just what kind of literary gem we have unearthed.

What about you? Have you read Foreign Bodies? What do you think about it?

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