Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

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Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A self-consciously literary novel riffing on Henry James's The Ambassadors. Dazzingly robust and energetic prose and a wonderful sense of time and place make this an absorbing novel. However, it's filled with unpleasant people with unfathomable motivations, so not one for the reader who finds pleasure in engaging emotionally with plot and character.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 1848877366

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

Bea Nightingale's brother Marvin wants her - is haranguing her - to retrieve his errant son Julian from post-war Paris, to where he has decamped in an effort to escape parental control. Bea, a New York high school teacher, is an unlikely candidate for the role of rescuer - she and her brother have been estranged for the best part of twenty years. But she capitulates to his demands and sets off on a journey in which her presence will affect not only Julian, but his sister who also runs off to Paris, his girlfriend, a displaced Eastern European Jew, his mother (also escaping Marvin, but this time in a psychiatric facility) and Bea's own ex-husband Leo.

Bea's presence seems to result in adverse consequences for everyone and the already-fractured family splits even further asunder as the novel goes on...

Foreign Bodies is loosely based on Henry James's The Ambassadors. And the twists and turns and endless avenues explored by each character feel very Jamesian. Bea, herself carrying hurt and injustice from long ago, observes her brother and his family and their damaged and damaging reactions to each other, and can't help but meddle. A life of passivity gives way to a brief but intense period of action. And how cathartic that must be!

I enjoyed this slightly incestuous, but beautifully-written literary novel. The prose is dazzling - energetic and robust - and there is a wonderful sense of time and place. And of course, there are fascinating extra layers provided by the riff on The Ambassadors for those who are aware of Henry James and of Ozick's career-long, love-hate relationship with him. However, it can't be denied that the book is filled with horrible people acting from unfathomable motivations - particularly the pivotal motivation of the novel - why on earth would Bea even consider helping an obnoxious and demanding, not to say estranged brother such as Marvin? - and who spend a great deal of time behaving in mean, selfish, spoiled, and sometimes downright vengeful ways. There is both a credibility gap and a likeability gap about it.

So, this is a novel for the cognoscenti, perhaps, who will love it as literary homage. The reader who finds most pleasure in engaging emotionally with plot and character; less so. You know which you are.

Foreign Bodies has been longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012. Our favourites from the list include State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, a perfectly pitched Amazonian adventure – lyrical, menacing, scientifically feasible, and Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, that rare thing - literary fiction that is highly readable.

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