Bookmarks Issue: 

A-Foreign BodiesCynthia Ozick, a novelist, an essayist, and a short story writer, often writes about Jewish American life. Foreign Bodies is her sixth novel, after Heir to the Glimmering World ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2004).

The Story: Foreign Bodies takes its broad outlines from Henry James's novel The Ambassadors (1903), in which an American gentleman is dispatched by a friend to rescue her son from decadent Parisian life. Here, however, it's 1952, and divorced Manhattan schoolteacher Bea Nightingale is sent by her estranged brother Marvin to convince his wayward college-age son Julian to return to the United States. Of course, the task is not as easy as it seems. Europe is adrift with devastated war refugees, and Julian has become entangled with Lili, an older woman who escaped the Holocaust. In this encounter between Europe and America, past and future, and assimilation and identity, Bea has the opportunity to examine her own failed marriage, ambitions, and life choices.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 255 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780547435572

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Ozick is a craggy writer, with strenuous climbs, momentary slides and startling views. ... But her vision of Europe and its tragic history is profound; and Lili is a creation of stunning depth. It is not Jamesian, it is Ozickian." Richard Eder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Ozick often examines the intersection of the Jew with a gentile world, and the tensions recur here. But in this book, ‘otherness' and the pull it can sometimes exert--or the dismay it can create--is mediated in many ways: across business/art, poverty/wealth, science/mumbo jumbo, the sacred/the godless." Susan Grimm

Salon 4 of 5 Stars
"To begin one of [Ozick's] novels is to be seized immediately by her indelible voice, but they are never mere exercises in style. The thing Beatrice and so many of the other characters in Foreign Bodies are all trying to do, that unification of old and new, Jew and Gentile, America and the venerable Western culture it inherited and has (ambivalently) carried forward? That's just what she does." Laura Miller

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The most useful judgment I can offer about this wonderful writer's newest opus and, indeed, the body of her work, is that whether it be the steadfast era of Henry James' Europe and America or the unsteady and troubled postwar West, or our own plagued epoch, it is unlikely you will come across a more sure-footed and nimble intelligence than storyteller Cynthia Ozick." Robert Birnbaum

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Ozick has the details right--Julian contributes to the legendary journal Merlin; Bea's ex-husband Leo, a composer, has his ambitions thwarted in Hollywood--but the book remains curiously unsatisfying. ... I'm not sure how else to say it, but she appears to be writing at a distance; we see the machinery, the interplay between characters, yet we never really have the sense that she has put her weight down. David L. Ulin

Denver Post 0.5 of 5 Stars
"[Ozick] has produced an indigestibly sour work of fiction whose dominant emotion is disgust: disgust at the body and its foulness, and disgust at the range of human selfishness, evil and folly. ... Yet while Foreign Bodies mimics the plot and some of the themes of The Ambassadors, it is about as Jamesian as a punch in the jaw." John Broening

Seattle Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] baffling new ‘photographic negative' of Henry James' The Ambassadors. ... It's a great premise--disappointingly handled." Michael Upchurch

Critical Summary

Whether or not critics embraced Foreign Bodies depended, in part, on whether they were familiar with Henry James's The Ambassadors, on which Ozick's novel is loosely modeled as a counterpoint. A few praised the novel as worthy of James; others, however, called the novel too schematic and thought that Ozick abused James's novel of manners "to deliver the maximum shock and insult" (Denver Post). The Los Angeles Times perhaps summed up the problem. The novel "doesn't quite know what it is": is it a family drama/comedy of manners or a larger social statement? Despite these complaints, most reviewers agreed that Lili is a compelling character and that Ozick's prose remains untarnished. Each new book from Ozick, now in her 80s, should be considered a small gift.