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Foreign bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Foreign bodies (2010)

by Cynthia Ozick

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Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Start with a recommendation from David Foster Wallace; add in a novel that got a lot to do with one of my five favorite novels (James' Ambassadors)... well, you'd think I'd love it. And yet, I conclude, meh.

First the fun stuff (fun, at least, for people like me): Ozick takes James' 'ficelle,' the character who exists only to let the plot carry on doing what it needs to do, and turns her into the main character. I always fall in love with James' ficelles (usually single/'oldmaid'30ish women who are smarter and kinder than anyone else in his novels), so I was immediately excited by this. Sadly, I am not in love with Bea. Anyway, Ozick then moves the plot of the Ambassadors to the fifties, and instead of Americans, makes it about Jewish Americans. I don't really care, although there are some possibly interesting bits about Jewish American young men falling in love with Jewish European displaced person middle aged women.

Now, the sillinesses: Americans in California are philistine idiots, even if they were once promising artists. Americans in Europe are post-romantic idiots, even if they were once promising scientists. Americans in New York, though, are all tremendously sensible. Even Europeans in New York are tremendously sensible. And this isn't just a 'New Yorkers know better' thing. The characters who stop by in New York become sensible for just as long as they're in New York. Suffice to say, as an Australian who has lived or presently lives in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, I find this sort of thing pretty irritating. I've never felt more insane and silly than the few days I've spent in New York. The literary disease of making everyone except the utterly, utterly stupid philistines consumers of great literature (including one character who's related to Proust) is in full flow.

Other than these points, it's meticulously, perfectly crafted, and has absolutely no emotional or intellectual interest or weight whatsoever. I imagine that Jewish Americans who live in New York will be very flattered. Otherwise you might want to stick to, say, The Ambassadors.

( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
"It was all well-written but there was absolutely nothing else drawing me to read it."
read more:http://likeiamfeasting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/foreign-bodies-cynthia-ozick.html ( )
  mongoosenamedt | May 3, 2013 |
I read about a third of The Ambassadors before starting this, which I don't think is necessary, but it did help me appreciate the book more. I liked the ideas (about expatriates and displaced persons and the world post-WWII) more than the plot or the characters, although I thought Bea worked as the central character. One problem I had was that Marvin seemed cartoonishly mean. ( )
  kgib | Mar 31, 2013 |
Having thoroughly enjoyed Ozick's collection Dictation, I was eager to pick up one of her novels. This one, unfortunately, didn't do it for me. While there is no question that Ozick is a literary giant and has an unbelievable command of the English language, I was disappointed overall.

The writer in me didn't understand why the narrative voice was consistent regardless of the character whose point of view was being used. They were all so different, so I was expecting differences in the way they expressed themselves, even while it was all in third person.

The reader in me was disappointed that all the men were one- (or, at most, two-) dimensional louts, and the women weren't much more complex. Characters that have no redeeming characteristics are unlikable and easily dismissed (maybe this was intentional). Characters with no flaws are plastic and dull. The only possibly sympathetic character was Margaret, Julian and Iris's mother, and she only appeared briefly.

My biggest question, though, concerned the point of the story. In the end, what changed, what was accomplished? I didn't feel that what Leo did tied everything up or solved any underlying puzzle, so I questioned the use of my time in reading the book.

This does not diminish the high regard I have for the stories in Dictation, and I do highly recommend them. ( )
  martimbe | Mar 6, 2013 |
If you wish to read a book filled with adjectives this is the one for you.
We have Bea, a high school teacher of literature, her exhusband Leo who is a composer of music, her estranged brother Marvin, a 'very important' business man, her nephew Julian, who has skipped out on Uni and gone to Paris, (whereabouts unknown), & her niece Iris.
Bea has never met her nephew and has seen her niece only once and very briefly at that. She lives and works in New York and her brother's family lives in Southern California. She is contacted by Marvin who demands that she take time off from her teaching and go to Paris to find Julian and bring him home. She really doesn't want to satisfy her demanding and demeaning brother, but finds herself making arrangements for someone to take over her classes and making travel arrangements as well.
When she arrives in Paris it takes her some time to find Julian and when she does she learns that he is with a woman whom he is in love with and while the young lady works in Social Services, Julian waits tables part time. She is unable to talk him into returning home. Bea returns to New York and apprises her brother Marvin of Julian's resistance to leaving Paris. This angers Marvin greatly and he blames Bea for the boy's decision.
Later Marvin decides to send Iris to Bea to fill Bea in on all of the details of Julian's life and what he is like, hoping that with this knowledge if Bea were to return to Paris she would have a much better chance of enticing the young man to return to home and school. Iris stays one day and skips out leaving a note for Bea telling her that she is going to Paris to find her brother and attempt to bring him home. Iris thinks she would have better luck than her Aunt Bea. When brother Marvin finds this out he again blames his sister Bea and is very angry.
Things go from boring to more boring to most boring. This book was either over my head or I just didn't get it. It just seemed half azzed to me. When I finished it, I thought to myself what a waste of 4 or 5 hours. I rated this one 1 1/2 stars just because I found the characters rather interesting but I didn't care for the writing nor the storyline and I do not recommend it. I am so surprised that it made the Orange Prize listing.

edited to admit that apparently I am the only one that this book did nothing for. Therefore I am claiming 'head in the wrong place at the wrong time'. ( )
1 vote rainpebble | Jan 10, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
In Foreign Bodies, Ozick has taken the framework of James's plot and turned it into a scaffold to support her perennial subject – the fate of the 20th-century Jew. The novel she has produced extends the reach of James's novel geographically and emotionally – and moves beyond homage into the realm of independent creation. It turns out that the road to perdition is a fruitful one.
Instead of an hourglass, Ozick has given us, to use James's own term, “a loose, baggy monster” accommodating, among other things, Yiddish folk tales, a series of letters, zigzags in time and space and digressions on the advent of television in America and the nature of a scherzo.
As for language, in place of James's filigree of circumvolution and ambiguity, we get overt statement and oodles of over-the-top-and-down-in-the-ditch prose... It's as if Ozick has seized the exquisitely written chamber music of James's masterpiece and arranged it for brass band; while there are passages as good as Gershwin's An American in Paris – many graced by marvellous images – there are frequent false notes, too....For a consummate celebration of Paris and for a profound exploration of the tragic disjunction between what we wish to be true and what we can't escape knowing to be real, read The Ambassadors. But for an evocation of unspeakable loss and unfathomable love rooted in the nightmare of a history James couldn't begin to imagine, you couldn't do better than Foreign Bodies.
Yet, unlike "Heir to the Glimmering World" or "Dictation," "Foreign Bodies" never seems to come to fruition. Partly, that's due to the nature of its construction — even though you don't need to have read "The Ambassadors" to understand it; there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners, a comment about "all this ambassadorial traffic" in an early piece of dialogue, or a recollection of Bea's father reading "George Meredith and Henry James."
Foreign Bodies tells a tale of “children gone wrong, life gone wrong, love traduced [and] hope rotted”. Bea’s meddling in these awful people’s lives leads to tragedy. She acts out of a mixture of boredom and despair but her desire for revenge after years of neglect is laced with kindness.

Ozick is not in the business of providing easy answers. She deals in big themes – not the least of which is anti-Semitism – yet uses a playful style to explore them. To echo the most famous line in The Ambassadors (“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to”): read this wonderful novel; it would be a mistake not to.
Ozick follows in his distant wake, but however much she reveres James’s great art, she doesn’t fear sailing on the oceans of blood spilled after his own slow-moving galleon finally docked. “Foreign Bodies” is a nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called “the real thing.

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But there are two quite distinct things – given the wonderful place he’s in – that may have happened to him. One is that he may have got butalized. The other is that he may have got refined.
-HENRY JAMES The Ambassadors
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July 23, 1952
Dear Marvin,
Well I’m back. London was all right, Paris was terrible, and I never made it down to Rome.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0547435576, Hardcover)

In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.


Foreign Bodies transforms Henry James’s prototype into a brilliant, utterly original, new American classic. At the core 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 leave New York for Paris to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of her brother’s family and even, after so long, her ex-husband. Every one of them is irrevocably changed by the events of just a few months in that fateful year. Traveling from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, facing her ex-husband and finally shaking off his lingering sneers from decades past, Bea Nightingale is a newly liberated divorcee who inadvertently wreaks havoc on the very people she tries to help. 

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:38 -0400)

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Presents a retelling of Henry James's "The Ambassadors" that follows the efforts of divorced schoolteacher Bea Nightingale to navigate a turbulent year spent with her estranged brother's family.

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