Foreign Bodies

Written by Cynthia Ozick
Review by Judith Starkston

I had never read any of Ozick’s work before this one. Being a diehard Henry James devotee, I was intrigued by the claim that Foreign Bodies was “a photographic negative” of The Ambassadors, “in which the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed,” as the book flap put it. In 1952, Bea Nightingale is a fifty-something schoolteacher who has let her life slip away silently, unresisting, in the many years following her divorce from her free-wheeling, ego-crushing musician husband. His grand piano, left behind in her New York flat, embodies the weight of his domineering legacy on her spirit. Out of the blue, her long-estranged, annoying, arrogant, wealthy brother writes to her and asks her to go to Paris and find his son who has “taken up” with a woman who is keeping him there, and probably ruining him. This is the main parallel to the plot of The Ambassadors. Through letters and in-person encounters, we enter into the sad and angry lives of Bea, her brother Marvin and his mentally unbalanced wife Margaret, and their two spoiled teenaged children, Julian and Iris.

I have to confess that I was perplexed and put off by the story. I have never encountered so many frankly unpleasant characters, about whose lives and ultimate destinies I really did not care. Everyone lies, outright or by omission; everyone is angry and belligerent; everyone uses everyone else for his or her own selfish ends. There is no generosity of spirit, no opening to a larger world or a greater love or even a pleasant life; in short, no redemption after all the sorrow and pain, even for Bea, who theoretically finds some freedom from the ex-husband’s spell she’s been under—but I didn’t see it or feel it. In that unhappy sense it is a “negative” of James’s book. I humbly hope I haven’t misunderstood a great writer’s novel, but this book was a dark and puzzling disappointment.