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
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