Should Your Book Club Read Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick?

My personal book club met the other night to discuss Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick and the reception was extremely tepid. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, so for my first blog post on this book, look here.

I was a tad surprised at the group’s consensus on this book. Everyone felt it was confusing for no apparent reason, and came away from it saying “huh?” There were eight of us gathered, and the other seven, like me, felt that perhaps they had missed something because they hadn’t read The Ambassadors by Henry James. One member, let’s call her Becky, actually made the effort to read about The Ambassadors on Wikipedia, but came away from it with very little insight–into either book!

Another member, let’s call her Susan, said that she thought the book was all about people who didn’t fit in somewhere–or who were foreign–struggling to belong. Marvin (the horrid father) is Jewish and so hasn’t had entry to many places he desired; his son Julian is a foreigner in Paris, as is his wife. Her foreign status is underscored by the fact that she’s a refugee, and being Romanian, a not very welcome refugee to boot. So, yes, that is that concern running through the story.

Someone, let’s call her Mary, mentioned that Bea undergoes the biggest transformation in the novel. I alluded to her change in my earlier blog post, and I can add here that she succeeds in shedding the suffocating control of her former husband and her horrid brother. Someone, let’s call her Barbara, thought that the former husband was worse than Bea’s brother. Which brings me to another point we discussed:

The lack of sympathetic characters in this book.

Let’s call her Lisa said she did like one person–Margaret, whom Marvin had sent off to the looney bin. The rest of us, however, couldn’t find anyone we cared about (well, maybe Lily a little bit), and wondered if that’s what was wrong with the book. Not that I think the characters have to be likable or sympathetic for a book to be good–I don’t think that at all. But there was something about this book that left us all…unsatisfied.

We then discussed the “group-think” of book critics, and wondered whether Cynthia Ozick was just getting by on her reputation. Most of us liked her writing quite a bit; you’ll remember that in my earlier blog post I said it sparkled. But this novel is not as wonderful as the book critics made it out to be, and that makes me wonder about the book critics!

Now, is it a good choice for a book club? I would say yes IF you read The Ambassadors along with it. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would select it. There are other books out there I would choose first.

Do you disagree? Tell me, what do you think of Foreign Bodies?

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?