Longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction
Pulitzer Prize finalist Cynthia Ozick’s fiction has been awarded multiple O. Henry Prizes. In Foreign Bodies, Ozick crafts a remarkable retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors—deftly using its plot, yet boldly infusing the novel with an all new place, time, and meaning. It’s 1952, and middle-aged Bea Nightingale reluctantly agrees to fly to Paris to help convince her estranged runaway nephew to return to his family. But Bea’s experiences abroad will change her forever.
©2010 Cynthia Ozick (P)2011 Recorded Books, LLC
I decided to read “Foreign Bodies” because of the superb review it received in the NYT from Thomas Mallon, an author I’ve read and respect. Since “Foreign Bodies” is based on Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” I decided to read “The Ambassadors” before tackling Cynthia Ozick’s book. I loved “The Ambassadors” and liked “Foreign Bodies.” Not surprisingly, if one has to choose between the two, James wins, but reading both is a pleasure as well.
“Foreign Bodies” is a decidedly literary work, yet it propels forward with a drive and speed that James lacks. Furthermore, in her modern retelling of “The Ambassadors,” Ozick makes explicit, plot details that James either obscures or ignores. I liked this definiteness. “Foreign Bodies” stands on its own, and can be read without relating it to the James prequel. Simply put, it is a very good book, which is enjoyable for both its story and its artful writing.
Final Comment: If I had to do it over again, I'd read this book rather than listen to it. Although the narration was good, I think that the literary qualities of this book are better appreciated if one has the written page in front of him or her.
Many critics slaved over the comparison of Foreign Bodies to Henry James The Ambassadors. It's been so long since I've read Ambassadors that it did not affect my experience with this novel. Instead all my attention focused on the ordinary yet intriguing characters of Bea, Lilly and Iris (not Julian or Marvin, as much). I marvel at the imagination, insight and skill of a writer who can spin together just the right threads to create the whole cloth character that seems a living, breathing human. One whose external life seems commonplace (like a 40 yr old high school teacher) but whose INTERNAL life grabs and holds my interest and concern. Yet, I could still see the individual's flaws and mistakes and shake my head over the poor decisions each one made. I didn't have to identify with the character in order to be deeply involved for the whole novel.
Through most of the book, I found myself focusing on the fleshing out of the two words in the title, foreign and bodies.
How were the characters foreign - to themselves, to others, to a fully experienced life? There are so many ways that the three women, especially, show that they haven't figured out much about themselves, though they are self-involved, like most of us. They are also unable to figure out the people they claim to love. Foreigners in many ways.
What was the scope of the word bodies? There is much description and reflection on the physical bodies - attractive, scarred, ghost-like -
and reflection on what it meant to be touching or never touched. I'm still thinking about them.
Finally, the best part for me is Ozick's carefully chosen language. I experienced the writer's words with my brain AND my ears. It was wonderful. Sometimes I stopped the recording to hear a section again. Her phrases, usually the metaphors, are so "spot on";
you get the picture, the meaning clearly and with just a few beautifully chosen words.
It's probably not necessary to say this, but I will. If you need a fast-paced, action packed book, skip this one. However, if you want to savor
expertly crafted character and hear the language of an artist, do read Foreign Bodies.(less)
Not one of the characters is likeable, except perhaps Lili whom we know least about. Everybody lies to everyone else and to themselves. The story and the style are nothing like Henry James - that becomes apparent about page 60 (Ch. 12). It's a conventional novel with an omnipresent story; we get everybody's point of view. At bottom, it's about a woman (Bea, the main character) backstabbing her unbelievably obnoxious brother when she gets the chance via her brother's estranged children. Bea also has an obnoxious ex-husband.
Straight forward, clear, easy to understand.
Mostly just disgust at all the characters, particularly the main character Bea.
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