In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.
Foreign Bodies transforms Henry James’s 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 brother’s 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.
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.