Cynthia Ozick’s new novel Foreign Bodies (2010) is touted as a retelling of Henry James’s classic The Ambassadors. I haven’t read The Ambassadors, so let this review be a favor to anyone who wonders whether reading The Ambassadors is a prerequisite. Answer: no. At least, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Then again, not having read The Ambassadors, I have no idea what layers and issues I missed out on, or how much more I would have enjoyed my reading experience. So, perhaps I’m no help at all.
The premise upon which the action is built is fairly easy to explain. The book begins with a letter, written in 1952, from Beatrice Nightingale (in New York) to her brother Marvin Nachtigall (in California; incidentally, Bea has changed her last name). From this letter we learn that Marvin sent Bea to Paris to find his wayward son, Julian, who has left his comfortable home in California to live the bohemian lifestyle abroad. Bea quickly tells Marvin that she has left Paris without ever encountering his son. Marvin immediately shoots Bea a disapproving (to put it mildly) letter, reminding her of how inept she has always been. He wants her to go back.
So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!
In the first chapters, Ozick’s descriptions of Paris as a torn up land are amazing. Contrary to what James presented, so I’ve heard, in Ozick’s rendering of 1952 Europe and America, America is the civilized land (at least, on the surface) and Europe is brutal; the streets of Paris are filled with sad souls. To make matters worse for Bea, it is one of the hottest summers on record. She had meant to go from Paris to Rome, but instead she just takes off to go back to New York, where for years (she’s 48) she has been a modestly successful teacher of literature to a bunch of rough boys destined to become mechanics (something her incredibly successful brother can’t help but remind her).
Bea and Marvin have never been close. Their Jewish heritage means different things to each of them. Interestingly, it is Marvin, who does not change his name, who wants to the least to do with it. He has married a Christian named Margaret; if anything, he retained the name Nachtigall to give him an advantage. For decades, Bea and Marvin have barely corresponded. In fact, Bea has never seen Julian, who is in his early 20 when she’s sent to salvage him. Some time in the past, however, Bea did meet Marvin’s oldest daughter, Iris.
Marvin hatches another plan. He will send his daughter to Bea so that Iris can educate her on Julian’s character (Iris and Julian are still close). Once Bea knows more about Julian, she is to return to Paris — nevermind the inconvenience of leaving that terrible job — and, for once, do something worth while in fetching Julian. Iris shows up as planned; however, instead of educating Bea on Julian’s character she asks Bea to lie for her: she will go to Paris and fetch Julian and Bea will simply tell Marvin that Iris has decided to stay in New York a bit longer. Shocking Bea further, a week later, when Iris was to return, a letter arrives: Iris has decided — well, had always intended — to stay in Paris too. If things were at one time bad between Marvin and Bea, they are about to get much worse.
However, just before Iris left for Paris, she hit a key on a grand piano that was taking up most of Bea’s apartment. The piano is a haunting reminder of Bea’s first marriage to Leo, an aspiring composer, which ended in failure and hurt (we meet Leo, and at one time he and Bea are face-to-face again; here are his thoughts: “Inconceivable that this unsmiling middle-aged woman could ever had been a wife, anyone’s wife. Certainly not his! Her ankles, those shoes. Even her wrist bones. She was dry all over. Were there breasts under that wool jacket?”). Bea could never get rid of that piano, which Leo simply abandoned, but she never had it make a sound. When Iris makes that note rings out, Bea has a flash of desire. When Iris’s letter comes from Paris, rather than tell Marvin what happened, and rather than just let her brothers’ family figure out their own mess, she returns to Paris herself.
Foreign Bodies, though not my favorite Ozick, has many of the strengths for which Ozick should be more widely read. Her sentences are filled with perfect words, and she can make the rhythm do whatever she likes, giving it a mournful tone here and a vibrant — sometimes even frenetic — tone there. Her characters, even though we don’t particularly like any of them (and there are a lot in this book), are alive to us. We may hate Marvin, we may hate Bea, we may hate Julian, Iris, Leo, Margaret, or, two I didn’t bring up here, Lili or the “Doctor,” but they each have a depth to them that few other writers could muster in their characters — if anything, I wanted more about each character. And through the entire book, under the surface of everything, are threads of themes and all come together — still under the surface. Ozick sums up an important one for us:
She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life.
And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.