Thursday, April 19, 2012

book review: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

The backstory: Foreign Bodies is on the 2012 Orange Prize shortlist.

The basics: Inspired by The Ambassadors by Henry James, Foreign Bodies is the story of Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged divorced English teacher living in New York City. The novel opens in 1952 with a letter from Bea's estranged brother Marvin asking her to go track down his son Julian, who has jetted off to Paris.

My thoughts: I haven't read The Ambassadors, but Ozick swept me into this world immediately. I had an instant reaction to Marvin's haughtiness and condescending nature and thus was immediately drawn to Bea. There's an element of fantasy here too. Yes, Bea must uproot her life to jet off to Paris, but she gets to be in Paris in 1952. The setting entranced me more than it did Bea, which was a refreshingly realistic perspective. Ozick describes the idealized Paris of this time comically:
"They were mostly young Americans in their twenties and thirties who called themselves "expatriates," though they were little more than literary tourists on a long visit, besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein."
This novel is not a lighthearted one, and it's not a typical travel novel either. Ozick tackles difficult issues of class, sexism, family and war:
"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. They were not postwar. Though they had washed 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."
A colorful variety of characters emerge in this novel, although Bea remained my favorite. It's a testament to Ozick, however, that such an American novel can include these searing truths about Americans too:
"The ground was scorched, the streets teemed with refugees, and these Americans were playing at fleeing! As if they had something to resent, to despise, to scorn, to run away from! As if they weren't the lords of the earth."
Foreign Bodies reads like a classic novel rather than historical fiction. It is so much a product of its setting, I had to continuously remind myself it was only published in 2010. It's noteworthy, too, because every article mentioning Ozick and the Orange Prize emphasized her age: 84. She was alive in 1952, but it's still impressive to so firmly set a historical novel in another time that even the language feels authentic.

Favorite passage: "She thought: How hard it is to change one's life. And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others."

The verdict: 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.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: November 1, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Foreign Bodies from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

16 comments:

  1. This one is on my huge list of - "bought the book must read it" - LOL Sounds good to me.

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    1. Glad to hear I'm not the only one with one of those shelfs! I hope you enjoy this one!

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  2. I had not heard much about this book, but the fact that you mention that it reads more like a classic than a historical piece really interests me. It sounds like there is a whole lot of interest for me here, and I am looking forward to adding this one to my list. Fantastic and very striking review today!

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    1. Thanks, Zibilee! I didn't know much about this one until it made the Orange longlist, but I was so glad to experience it.

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  3. I had not heard of this one, but I really like the way you broke it all down. You made it sound very appealing.

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    1. Thanks, Ti! It was a strong book and one that brought out the former English student in me!

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  4. Wow, this book sounds very unusual in the way it was written which I really like. I think I need to check it out.

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    1. It was unusual, and so intriguing. I hope you enjoy it!

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  5. Now this is shortlisted, I'm going to read it. I'm encouraged by the fact you enjoyed it :)

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    1. I enjoyed it, and perhaps more importantly, I was impressed with it. Enjoy!

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  6. I have this on my pile but haven't started yet, so I appreciate your review. I hate reading books based on other books when I haven't read the original, but I'm on a time crunch here!

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    1. While I'm sure reading The Ambassadors would have shed a different light on it, this title stands on its own well. Enjoy!

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  7. I'm interested to read anything of Ozick's. I shouldn't have any excuse as I have The Shawl and Heir to the Glimmering World on my stacks right now. Reading slacker is me. lol

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    1. I owned The Puttermesser Papers for years and moved it several times without reading it. Perhaps I should go revisit that one too!

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  8. I read The Ambassadors not too long ago for a short-lived book group, so I should probably make this my first Cynthia Ozick book in a long time, if not ever. At 272 pages, it isn't as long as The Ambassadors, I hope!

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    1. Laurie--I'd love to hear thoughts on this one if you've read The Amabassadors too. I imagine there are other layers of meaning. Enjoy!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!