In Foreign Bodies Bea Nightingale, a school teacher divorced from a musician, travels to Paris on an errand for her brother Marvin: she needs to retrieve his son, Julian. Once there, she meets Julian’s lover Lily, and soon enough his sister Iris also becomes involved. Caught between her demanding brother Marvin, and her nephew and niece, Bea tries to help but inevitably hurts the people around her, while also trying to move forward in her own life and finally leave her ex-husband’s shadow behind.
Foreign Bodies was inspired by Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I have not read the latter, but what I gather from plot summaries I have read, Ozick’s setting is the mirror image of the one in the Ambassadors. Foreign Bodies is set in 1952, just after the Second World War. Europe, and consequently Paris, are portrayed as overrun with people who lost their home and family. Sadness rules. The city has lost its flair and is dilapidated. Julian moves in circles of frauds, the jobless, the homeless, and people so caught up in their past that they’re only surviving and not really living. In short, Europe is bleak: the thought of Europe scares Marvin, according to him it promises no future for his son, but Julian, Iris, and Bea also experience it as fascinating, as a place where Marvin’s expectations and constrictions lapse.
The story is told from different viewpoints. Bea is central to the story, but sometimes it also focuses on the experiences of Iris and Julian. Bea’s ex-husband has a few pages dedicated to him. So does Marvin, though he mostly features in his letters to Bea. These alternating viewpoints can make the story a little fragmentary, but I think Bea is central enough to glue everything together. What might put off some readers is that time moves incredibly fast in the novel. It has that “just within reach of your fingertips” feel, and then it moves on.
What stole my heart in Foreign Bodies is the theme of changing and shaping your life, on your own, as an individual wanting to be rid of other circumstances, but nevertheless getting caught up in them in different ways. It is summed up pretty much in a thought Bea has at one point:
“She thought: How hard it is to change one’s life.
And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others.”
Another thing I loved was the characterisation. Every character in the book is flawed, but not everyone is unlikable. Julian and Iris are somewhat spoiled, or at the very least selfish. I didn’t really connect with Julian, I thought he was taking his own misery a little too seriously, his withdrawal from the world. I understood Lily better, with her hinted tragic past set in Eastern Europe, though she remains a little on the surface as a character. Iris well, she’s spoiled and a little annoying, but I felt for her feeling of entrappedness. Bea is lovely. She’s single and struggling, and trying to let go of the demons of her past while still having them overshadow her at times. It is hard not to feel sympathetic towards her from the very first letter she receives from Marvin onward. Because oh, Marvin, how I wished to slap you out of your self-indulgent tragedies. He made me so angry. But Bea managed to quiet that anger down a little, because she tries to stand up to him in her own flawed way. Then again, Bea is often a little stupid and a little weak as well. Yet, I think, all in all, Bea made the story for me.
In Foreign Bodies I found a captivating story, or at least partly so because it also remains a little distant and under the surface. I enjoyed reading it, and loved the characterisation and Bea in particular. The writing has that sparse and quiet quality that I so often enjoy. But now, having thought about it for a couple of days, I’m not sure if it is that special, or all that memorable, in the long run. I guess we need to wait and see how I feel after I have finished more of the longlisted Orange Prize books.
Other Opinions: The Written, Spoken and Visual Word, The Mookse and the Gripes, 5 Minutes for Books, Literary License, Bibliojunkie.
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