Synopses & Reviews
“An absorbing achievement .º.º. A nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called ‘the real thing.”—New York Times Book Review
Cynthia Ozick is a literary treasure. In her sixth novel, she retraces Henry Jamess The Ambassadors and delivers a brilliant, utterly new American classic.
At the center of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to travel to Europe to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of his family. Over the course of a few months she travels from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, and finally facing her ex-husband to shake off his lingering sneers from decades past. As she inadvertently wreaks havoc in their lives, every one of them is irrevocably changed.
“Raucous, funny, ferocious, and tragic. A literary master, as James was, Ozick makes all those qualities fit together seamlessly, and with heartbreaking effect.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“Dazzling, even masterful.”—Entertainment Weekly
Ozick's somber latest (after Dictation) pursues the convergence of displaced persons in post WWII Paris and New York. In the summer of 1952 Bea Nightingale a divorced middle aged high school English teacher in New York has been dispatched by her bullying brother Marvin a successful businessman to Paris to bring home his wayward son Julian who turns out to be an ambitionless waiter now married to an older Jewish woman Lili who lost her husband and young son in the war. Ozick deftly delineates these fragile lives as they chase their own interpretations of the American dream: the son of Jewish Russian immigrants Marvin has remade himself in the WASP mold required of Princeton and his blue blooded wife; his well educated but rudderless daughter Iris is also on Julian's trail and hungry for the feminist inspiration her Aunt Bea imparts; Julian and Lili grasp each other like a mutual life raft; while Bea herself is intelligent and clear eyed about everything but her own heart. Unfortunately Ozick doesn't make a convincing case for all the fuss over Julian and the perilous intersections this novel sets up derail into murky and for the reader frustrating sidetracks. (Nov.) " Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved."
"Ozick's somber latest (after Dictation) pursues the convergence of displaced persons in post-WWII Paris and New York. In the summer of 1952, Bea Nightingale, a divorced middle-aged high school English teacher in New York, has been dispatched by her bullying brother, Marvin, a successful businessman, to Paris to bring home his wayward son, Julian, who turns out to be an ambitionless waiter now married to an older Jewish woman, Lili, who lost her husband and young son in the war. Ozick deftly delineates these fragile lives as they chase their own interpretations of the American dream: the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Marvin has remade himself in the WASP mold required of Princeton and his blue-blooded wife; his well-educated but rudderless daughter, Iris, is also on Julian's trail and hungry for the feminist inspiration her Aunt Bea imparts; Julian and Lili grasp each other like a mutual life raft; while Bea herself is intelligent and clear-eyed about everything but her own heart. Unfortunately, Ozick doesn't make a convincing case for all the fuss over Julian, and the perilous intersections this novel sets up derail into murky and, for the reader, frustrating sidetracks. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Ozick’s heady fiction springs from her deep critical involvement in literature, especially her fascination with Henry James, which emboldened her to lift the plot of his masterpiece, The Ambassadors, and recast it in a taut and flaying novel that is utterly her own….Ozick’s dramatic inquiry into the malignance of betrayal; exile literal and emotional; the many tentacles of anti-Semitism; and the balm and aberrance of artistic obsession is brilliantly nuanced and profoundly disquieting."--Booklist, starred review
From Kirkus :
Julian Nachtigall, son of a tyrannical and imperious businessman, has gone to Paris but has shown no interest in returning home. While there, he links up with Lili, a Romanian expat about ten years his senior. Marvin, the father, is furious that Julian wants to waste his life playing around in nonserious matters (e.g., writing essays and observations of French life), so he sends his sister Bea (who’s Anglicized her name to Nightingale) to Paris to bring him to his senses as well as bring him home. Bea teaches English to high-school thugs who mock her love of Wordsworth and Keats, and Marvin has always held her in contempt for what in his eyes is her impractical and useless profession. Bea is complicit in tricking Marvin by sending Julian’s sister, Iris, to Paris instead. Iris is the apple of Marvin’s eye, a graduate student in chemistry and a promising scientist—in other words, all that Julian is not. But unbeknownst to Marvin, Iris is also happy to escape the imperatives of her authoritarian and oppressive father, so she goes to Paris more in the belief that she will stay there rather than bring her brother back home to California. Through flashbacks we learn of Bea’s unhappy and brief marriage to Leo Coopersmith, a composer who has pretensions of being the next Mahler, though he winds up something of a Hollywood hack, composing music for cartoons. We also meet Marvin’s long-suffering and brow-beaten wife, Margaret, whose neurasthenia is directly attributable to her husband’s iron-fisted despotism. Ozick brilliantly weaves together the multiple strands of her narrative through letters, flashbacks and Jamesian observations of social behavior.
This is superb, dazzling fiction. Ozick richly observes and lovingly crafts each character, and every sentence is a tribute to her masterful command of language.
*Starred Review* An extraordinary novel, loosely based on The Ambassadors—but Ozick (Dictation, 2008, etc.) manages to out-James the master himself.
"Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s greatest living writers... The "leaving" — of parents, of a spouse, of a child, of a family, of a country, of a continent, of all we thought our lives were for — follows every character through this brilliant story of how we mark others without knowing it, revealing how we are all tattooed by other people’s ambitions." - - Dara Horn, The Forward
"It is pure pleasure to encounter Cynthia Ozick: a morally brilliant comic master whose plots keep the pages turning and whose every sentence sings. Ozick's latest novel is billed as a 'photographic negative' of Henry James' The Ambassadors, with the same plot and the opposite meaning. Readers put off by James' baroque style have nothing to fear; part of Ozick's inversion of James is the crisp bite of her prose, and the story, ultimately, is fully hers." - Ms. Magazine
"...her vision of Europe and its tragic history is profound; and Lili is a creation of stunning depth. It is not Jamesian, it is Ozickian." -- Richard Eder, Boston Globe
"Ozick has achieved another success. Henry James -- the master -- would not be displeased." -- Miami Herald
"This is vintage Ozick; she is, perhaps, our most classical contemporary novelist, with a strong sense of literary heritage." -- LA Times
Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26). Bea Nightingale, a teacher in the Bronx in the nineteen-fifties, is in a rut when her peevish brother entreats her to retrieve his son and daughter from Paris, where they sought refuge from his oppressive ways. Ozick’s taut, sparkling novel is billed as a retelling of Henry James’s "The Ambassadors," and she transforms James’s cultivated Europe into a "scarred and exhausted" landscape teeming with the ghosts of war. Bea is a reluctant ambassador: at first she strives to do her brother’s bidding, but soon the "romantic agony" of Paris awakens feelings she has long kept subdued. Embroiled in a family drama, careful Bea meddles where once she stood idle, and she confronts a vexing paradox: "how hard it is to change one’s life" and "how terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others." -- The New Yorker
"What makes this novel such an absorbing achievement is not so much its slanted replications of the story line of 'The Ambassadors'...but the witty, fierce way in which it goes about upending the whole theme and meaning and stylistic manner of its revered precurser....'Foreign Bodies' is a nimble, entertaining literary homage, but it is also, chillingly, what James would have called 'the real thing.'" - The New York Times Book Review
Four out of four stars:
"Who would dare to rewrite Henry James? Ozick proves up to the task, recasting The Ambassadors with Jewish Americans in post-war Paris—a city of displaced, battered souls. Asked by her brother to retrieve his errant son Julian from France, divorcée Beatrice acquiesces and becomes entangled in a web of deceptions. She’s like King Midas in reverse: All she touches turns to ash. A profound sadness lies just beneath the polished prose of this affecting tale." – S. C. - People Magazine
In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry Jamess The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.
Foreign Bodies transforms Henry Jamess prototype into a brilliant, utterly original, new American classic. At the core of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to leave New York for Paris to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of her brothers family and even, after so long, her ex-husband. Every one of them is irrevocably changed by the events of just a few months in that fateful year. Traveling from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, facing her ex-husband and finally shaking off his lingering sneers from decades past, Bea Nightingale is a newly liberated divorcee who inadvertently wreaks havoc on the very people she tries to help.
For her sixth novel, Ozick set herself a brilliant challenge: to retell the story of Henry James's "The Ambassadors"--the work he considered his best--but as a photographic negative, that is the plot is the same, the meaning is reversed.
By the summer of 1952, Beatrice Nightingale had taught school in New York City for 24 years, had been divorced from her Hollywood-composer husband for some 20 of those years, and had been estranged from her brother for nearly her entire life. She had lived in the same small apartment since her wedding, a space still dominated by her ex-husband's piano--just as her life was still defined by his decisions of so long ago. But that summer, her brother suddenly reached out to her for the first time in years, begging her to intercept and retrieve her nephew, a Paris runaway. His request propels Bea toward decisions and departures--partly well intended, partly selfish--that unravel a complex knot of siblings, spouses, exes, and Bea's extended family, in an unforgettable portrait of a middle-aged woman who finally gains the chance to escape the traps of her past. Bea travels to Paris, California, and back to New York, and the novel shifts perspective to reveal the stories of her niece, her nephew and his unexpected wife, Bea's brother and sister-in-law, and her ex-husband. The men in her life have treated her badly, as she is painfully aware, yet in finally trying to gain her own independence from them, how can she resist her own, more subtle form of counterattack and revenge?
About the Author
Author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, CYNTHIA OZICK is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper's, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.