Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
24th May 2011
Ozick is a Jewish American novelist famed for her depictions of Jewish American life in her essays, short stories and novels and has received numerous plaudits from both critics and fellow authors. As the Washington Post said, “if there is such a thing as a literary pantheon in America, then Cynthia Ozick is surely its Athena.”
Foreign Bodies is only Ozick’s sixth novel in almost a half century of writing. She is obviously a lady who goes for quality over quantity and it shows in her latest offering.
This novel follows Bea Nightingale, a middle aged divorcee English teacher living in New York and her difficult relationships with her brother, niece, nephew, ex-husband and various other individuals who make up her existence in a cramped apartment and inner-city school at which she teaches.
This is not a comfortable novel to read, but it is exceptionally well written. Ozick uses language like a Michelin star chef uses ingredients – at first glance, it may look difficult to swallow but the aftertaste is one that will stay with you for a very long time.
We meet Bea, born Beatrice Nachtigall, in Paris on a holiday for which she has saved for months but is usurped by her brother Marvin, and turned into a “rescue mission” – to bring back a nephew she has never met who has been sucked into the itinerant lifestyle that is post-war Paris.
From the outset, it’s difficult to like Marvin and the other characters – Julian, Bea’s nephew; Iris, her niece; Margaret, Marvin’s mental institution dwelling wife and Leo Coopersmith, Bea’s ex-husband don’t fare much better. They all come across as selfish, self-involved and bullying – there is barely enough room in the novel to fit all the egos.
More than about the rescue mission, this is a story of the American Dream gone wrong. Marvin, a social climber who won a scholarship to an Ivy-league school, raises two children with great potential in such a way that they bolt at the soonest opportunity to get as far away from him as possible.
Bea, having never met her wayward nephew, is suddenly thrust into family life, while having to endure endless insults from her brother who believes her “so-called job” as a teacher means she can drop everything at a whim to fulfil his wish to have his son home.
Ozick manages to cram in endless layers into Foreign Bodies’ 255 pages – as the story progresses, we learn about Bea’s relationship with Marvin, Iris and Julian’s relationships with their parents and Europe in the early post-World War II years.
Possibly the most interesting and illuminating storyline is the one involving Bea and her ex husband – aspiring composer Leo – who convinces Bea that instead of a big wedding party, they should buy a grand piano on which he can construct his masterpiece.
Despite having been divorced for a number of years, the piano continues to overwhelm Bea’s apartment and her life but as the story evolves, we see Bea grow a bit of a backbone and start to stand up for herself.
Ozick’s novel is suffused with beautiful language which expertly masks heavy topics and damaged landscapes – in this way, she is not unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favourite American author. Who’s yours?
Recommended for: Those who fancy dipping into the less glamorous side of 1950s Paris.
Other recommended reading: An obvious comparison for Americans absorbed by the excess of Europe is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but for a family novel of a different nature, try Wild Swans by Jung Chang.