Bea Nightingale is a middle-aged teacher in Fifties New York. Nightingale, an improvised last name to replace Nachtigall. Bea is single, after the collapse of her life with musician Leo Coopermith. Bea is summoned by her obnoxious brother Marvin to persuade his son Julian to come home from Paris. At every point Bea admits failure in bringing Julian home, Marvin would write one of the most nastiest letters in literary history: ““If you haven’t got any family feeling, why not a little family responsibility?” he asks Bea, insisting she return to Paris immediately to try again to discover his son’s whereabouts. “Don’t tell me about your so-called job, they’ll never miss you.”
While in Paris, Bea is fascinated by Paris’s old-world beauty and squalor. The raucous Americans and other Europeans who swept up in Paris as a transit to the new world.
The other foregin contingent – the ghosts – were polyglot. They chatered in dozens of lanugages. Out of their mouths spilled all the cadences of Europe. Unlike the Americans, they shunned the past, and were free of any taint of nostalgia or folklore of idyllic renewal. They were Europeans whom Europe had set upon; they wore Europe’s tattoo. You could not say of them, as you surely would of the Americans, that they were a postwar wave. Thery were not postwar. Theought they had awashed up in Paris, the war was still in them. They were the displaced, the temporary and the temporizing. Paris was a way station they were in paris only to depart from paris, as soon as they knew who would have them. Paris was a city to wait in. it was a city to get away from. – page 3
When Bea eventually locates both her nephew, Julian, he is a married man with a foreign wife Lili. Lili is believed to be a Bucharest Aristocrat, Lily is much older and has lost her son and husband. Julian’s sister, Iris, the pride of Marvin’s who is about to be the next Madam Curie abandoned her promising future and flew off to Paris on the pretext to look for her brother but ended up squatting in a quack doctor’s (Philip Parsons) fifth-floor apartment, together with Julian and Lili. To add insult to injury, both Marvin’s children condescend to Bea, while simultaneously trying to enlist her help to lie and deceive in evading their father’s wishes.
At this point, I start to feel really sorry for Bea and wonder why she is doing all this persuading for?
Back in the USA, Bea secretly visits Marvin’s estranged wife, Margaret, in a lavish mental institution in California and found out her choice to be away from Marvin was a moment of illumination rather than sanity. I believe in her attempt to get back at her brother she has done all that sleuthing on his back and fail to divulge the truth from him.
If I were to think of anything good that came out of reading is that there a moral message that: money can’t buy love nor dominate other people’s lives. The more a parent wants to control an offspring’s life, the more the offsprings would want to be free of the leash. I have seen the rich manoeuvre their relationships to those closest to them in this way with nothing to gain at the end. The novel ends with an unanswerable rhetorical question: “In the long, long war with Leo, wasn’t it Bea who’d won?” Foreign Bodies suggests that there are no real winners in interpersonal or family conflicts, any more than in international wars: just victims and displaced persons. The worthwhile struggles are internal: and these are the hardest of all. This reminds me the internal struggle of Bea to be rid of her ex-husband’s ghost in her life, although it took too long, I’m happy that she took the action to delete every remnant’s Leo has in her life.
Otherwise, all I could think of how much I dislike every character in this novel, with the exception of Bea. Deceiving and selfish, I have never come across such horrible people and least of all the nastiest epistolary chapters I have ever read in a novel. The person narrative changes from one person to the next makes the final chapters a little uneven, when half the book was told through Bea’s eyes, I wonder why the different voices introduced at the end?
This book is insightful in parts and painful at most. The writing can be said at times beautiful, but at times pretentious, apart from the letter chapters, makes this novel impersonal.
Views are divided on this book:
Chinoiseries: There is not much else to say about the book, except that I am awarding it two stars solely on the fact that Ozick has a elegant writing style that really shines in some places. But in the end, the book left me feeling rather underwhelmed.
Kevin from canada: I certaintly enjoyed that and it only adds to my high valuation of Ozick. Having said that, if you have not read her before, I would not start here. She is a wordsmith of the first order (and the short stories show it) but when she writes novels she does take the reading experience to a whole new dimension and that calls for some work. To appreciate that experience, I would advise starting with the shorter works (you could try The Shawl, but you would be starting with her best) — as much as I think Foreign Bodies is a signifcant achievement. This latest novel may require a revisit before I start to understand just how good it might be.
Iris on books: In Foreign Bodies I found a captivating story, or at least partly so because it also remains a little distant and under the surface. I enjoyed reading it, and loved the characterisation and Bea in particular. The writing has that sparse and quiet quality that I so often enjoy. But now, having thought about it for a couple of days, I’m not sure if it is that special, or all that memorable, in the long run. I guess we need to wait and see how I feel after I have finished more of the longlisted Orange Prize books.
Nomad reader: There’s a darkness and honesty about human deviousness present in this novel. Ozick is a masterful writer, and while this novel’s action was a bit uneven, it is an excellent novel.
Paperback. Publisher: Atlantic Book 2010; Length: 255 pages; Setting: Paris, California. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading at: 24th April 2012.
About the writer:
Cynthia Ozick (born April 17, 1928) is an American-Jewish short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
She attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. She earned her B.A. from New York University and went on to study English Literature at Ohio State University, where she completed an M.A. Ozick is married to Bernard Hallote, a lawyer, with whom she has a daughter. She is the niece of the Hebraist Abraham Regelson.
Ozick’s fiction and essays are often about Jewish American life, but she also writes on a broad range of topics including politics, history, and literary criticism. In addition, she has written and translated poetry.
Her novel Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), called The Bear Boy in the United Kingdom, received much praise in the literary press. The Din in the Head is her sixth collection of literary essays. In 1986, she was selected as the first winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story. In 2000, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Quarrel & Quandary. Ozick was on the shortlist for the 2005 Man Booker International Prize, and in 2008 she was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award established by Bernard Malamud’s family to honor excellence in the art of the short story.
It is interesting to read your views, which are decidedly more negative than my own, though I can see *why*. I agree that most of the characters are detestable, and I only really felt for Bea.. I would have found it interesting to learn more about Lily, because I thought her story might have been of the most interest, really.
Thank you for your first comment. I thought Lily is interesting and the chapter where she took a tragic decision makes a very humane sub-story in this novel. Still, not a good intro to Oznick and I’m not sure if I will read her other novels.
You’re right, views are definitely divided on this book. I’m waiting for my hold to come in at the library, I can’t wait to see which side of the divide I fall on.
Look forward to hear what you think Sam. I hope my review doesn’t colour your perception in anyway! 🙂
This looks like a psychological novel, an interesting and painful one at that. I would love to visit Paris (it’s on my bucket list) and especially more so after reading your review.
I hope you do visit Paris one day and many other great cities in Europe! 🙂
I liked this one more than you did, but I completely understand your reaction. It’s not a crowd-pleasing novel, and ultimately it’s one I admired more than enjoyed. It does make me want to go back and read more Ozick though!
You said it right there. There are books that I may have admired but don’t really enjoy. It will be great to have both elements and that I hope is the winner for the next Orange Prize.