Bea Nightingale is a New York teacher of English, approaching her 50th birthday, in a down-market industrial area — her students literally smell of the working class, but can be induced into reading by the violence in Shakespeare, since it reflects their lives. It is 1952, with the War still a recent memory, but Bea has saved up her money and is making her pilgramage to the beacon city that drove that generation of readers, Paris:
At that time there were foreigners all over Paris, suffering together with the native population, wiping the trickling sweat from their collarbones, complaining equally of feeling suffocated; but otherwise they had nothing in common with the Parisians or, for that matter, with one another. These strangers fell into two parties — one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelous, forlorn: a squad of maundering ghosts.
You can place Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baldwin, Hemmingway, whomever or wherever you want in that spectrum. That is what Bea wants to explore.
Her terrible brother, Marvin (an arms manufacturer, wealthy, living in Los Angeles, they haven’t seen each other for decades) has heard of the trip. The siblings have been out of touch for decades, but that does not preclude intervention here. Marvin’s son, Julian, went to Paris on a “gap-year” exploration some months ago (yes, here’s The Ambassadors angle) and hasn’t been heard from since, except for appeals for money. Despite their lack of recent connection and the fact that Bea has never met Julian, Marvin wants Bea to search for his son:
So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!
For those who have read The Ambassadors, that excerpt should be enough to indicate why comparisons are of limited value — different age, different circumstances. James’ novel may be a model, but it is nothing more.
So let’s throw some other plot elements into the picture. Justin has found a lover, Lili, a displaced Romanian, whom he has taken up with. His sister, Iris, whom driven Marvin has high hopes for as a potential Nobel chemistry winner, although she is still a student, enters the picture as a force with influence on her father, brother and aunt. Plus, she has some goals of her own (feminism is part of the “negative” image in the comparison with James). And Marvin has placed his wife, an American Brahmin, in an LA “spa” to deal with her mental disorders. All of this contemporary action brings back memories for Bea of her ex-husband, Leo, now a successful composer of soundtracks for Hollywood movies. Ozick uses all of these elements to remove her novel from the narrative of James.
(I am cheating vistors who want a decent plot outline in this abstract summary. For a much more informative version, visit Trevor’s review at the MookseandtheGripes — it is a fair representation of how the action unfolds. And because he has done such a good job of describing the book as book, let me indulge in a very extended metaphor.)Consider Ozick’s novel as a literary version of a cubist painting — I’ve chosen a Picasso portrait, but others would do. Now, imagine cutting this image up into a jigsaw puzzle and facing the challenge of putting the resulting pieces together; because that is what Ozick has done with this book. Each of her chapters is a piece of that puzzle; the reader’s challenge is to reassemble them and then figure out the resulting image.
There is a story line that pulls the book together, but, like Cubist paintings, while the elements of it all have consistency, they don’t really fit together in a coherent whole once you have done that work. The author emphasizes that by setting each chapter in different places (New York, Paris, Los Angeles, even in transit) and narrating each from a different point of view. The “glue” — if there is one — that holds them together are chapters which consist of correspondence between the various narrators — Bea, Iris, Marvin.
Like Picasso, each of the pieces of the puzzle is developed in exquisite detail. And there are enough hints, like a good jigsaw, to put them together. But when you have completed the task, the final image is much like Picasso’s portrait — there is much to admire, but you have only begun the task.
For this reader, that is the beauty of this novel. Each of its elements is sketched in the kind of realist detail that you can only expect from an exceptional short story writer (which Ozick, winner of four O Henry awards, certainly is). But when you follow the outlines and stitch them together, and then step back, the resulting picture requires a whole new layer of interpretation.
I certaintly enoyed that and it only adds to my high valuation of Ozick. Having said that, if you have not read her before, I would not start here. She is a wordsmith of the first order (and the short stories show it) but when she writes novels she does take the reading experience to a whole new dimension and that calls for some work. To appreciate that experience, I would advise starting with the shorter works (you could try The Shawl, but you would be starting with her best) — as much as I think Foreign Bodies is a signifcant achievement. This latest novel may require a revisit before I start to understand just how good it might be.