“How easy it is to slip out of a harness. You just slip out of it, that’s all.”
Author Cynthia Ozick seems to have had a tangled relationship with Henry James. James’s later novels were the subject of Ozick’s Master’s thesis, and at one point she felt that James’s influence had managed to spread to the dialogue of her first novel Trust. I’ve never read any Ozick, so this was the first for me. I decided to read Foreign Bodies because it is loosely based on James’s The Ambassadors, and I’ve also seen the book described as a retelling of the classic tale. I’ll admit that if I hadn’t started out knowing about the James connection, I don’t think that I would have jumped to the conclusion that Ozick was leaning on James. That’s a compliment to Ozick since she was apparently influenced by James’s novel, using it as a springboard for her own tale but then updating it to 1950s America and Paris.
Foreign Bodies begins with a few lively letters back and forth between divorced Bronx schoolteacher Bea Nightingale and her wealthy California-based brother, Marvin. Here’s Bea at the beginning of the story, forty-eight years old and firmly entrenched in a rut:
She was one of that ludicrously recognizable breed of middle-aged teachers who save up for a longed-for summer vacation in the more romantic capitals of Europe.
Bea and Marvin have been estranged for years. There’s no one single infraction–no great wound or fight that drove them apart; it’s more a question of distance and a difference in temperament. Marvin is married and lives in a mansion that resembles a transplanted castle; his dotty wife Margaret is locked up in some sort of asylum (euphemistically styled a ‘rest home’), and he has two adult children, Julian and Iris. Julian is apparently living the bohemian life in Paris and refuses to come home while Iris is a promising chemistry graduate student. Unexpectedly Bea gets a letter from Marvin, and he basically orders Bea to get to Paris, search for Julian and bring him home. Marvin is, he claims, too busy to see to the problem himself, and it’s obvious that Marvin’s letters are designed to guilt Bea into action:
You ought to be in touch more. When I see how thick Iris is with Julian, I realize how derelict my own sister’s been.
Marvin’s request is, of course, intrusive both to Bea and to Julian. Julian, who’s now involved with a displaced Romanian refugee (“human debris discharged from the diseased bowels of Eastern Europe” ) has no intention of returning home to his domineering, obnoxious father, so Bea’s attempts at ‘rescue’ fail miserably. Tenacious Marvin doesn’t give up easily, however, and he ascribes Julian’s refusal to return to Bea’s failure as an aunt, a sister, and as a human being. Julian’s sister Iris enters the mix, and even Bea’s ex-husband, Leo, a man Bea’s been divorced from for over twenty years and who is now a wealthy Hollywood music theme writer, enters the drama. Within a short period of time, Bea’s quiet, orderly life is in chaos.
There’s a lot going on this book. The New World vs. the Old (one of James’s themes, of course), but here the New World is sliding into McCarthyism along with bigotry to European refugees who have uncertain pasts. Not that it’s a great deal better in Paris and a few scenes paint a vivid portrait of a ‘charity’ devoted to relocation of refugees to somewhere…anywhere else. The story is also about familial relationships and how we put up with so much bad behaviour from relatives with whom we have very little in common.
There’s subtle humour here as Bea is thrust into the hub of her brother’s family dynamic. She’s the person least responsible for the mess, but she finds herself accused of being responisble for the chaos that ensues. Not too surprisingly, given their father’s temperament and his drive to dominant, both Julian and Iris experience a sort of liberation in Paris and have no desire to return home. Left to their own devices in Paris, unemployed Julian writes dark tales while Iris becomes mixed up with a charlatan. But lest I make the mistake of making Bea seem the victim here, I should clarify and say that she isn’t. While she’s largely acted upon, frustrated and annoyed she takes matters into her own hands. There’s one moment when Bea acts in an incredibly authoritative way when she makes a decision she has no right to make. Interestingly, the events provide liberation of sorts for Bea too.
While Bea and her choice of modest career is ridiculed by both her brother and her ex-husband, Bea is far more content with her lot than either Marvin or Leo. At first Bea feels no curiosity or obligation towards her niece and nephew, but she’s slowly dragged into the family drama through a role that’s scripted by her rude, selfish, domineering brother–an impossible man who pens his autocratic demands on fancy notepaper which boasts a fake crest.
Ozick’s tale illustrates that family drama escalates as it leaks out from the nuclear family and spreads to Bea on the other side of the country. Foreign Bodies is not so much about the corruption/enrichment of the Europe experience but rather it’s about the complexities and absurdities of familial relationships. When Bea reaches out to her unknown nephew and niece, she’s treated to rebuffs and ridicule, and this of course highlights the idea that people frequently treat family members–even unfamiliar ones–poorly. Both Iris and Julian view Aunt Bea as their father’s sister–his emissary, and they don’t recognise her individuality or even question why she’s estranged from her brother. Bea becomes the convenient scapegoat for the family’s morass of tangled drama
There were several points in the novel I wondered why Bea bothered. Marvin’s letters to Bea are so rude, so patronizing, I found myself asking why on earth Bea bothered with this temperamental lot. Marvin, a quintessential bully who finds people either useful or expendable, was obnoxious when he was young and in the assurance of an affluent middle-age, he’s impossible. There’s no in-between. Hence the wife in the asylum, and this section is laced with comedy and tragedy. This brings me to the novel’s subtle observations on relationships between siblings. Marvin thinks Iris and Julian are tight. Iris agrees. This second relationship between siblings comes under scrutiny at the novel develops. Foreign Bodies argues that sometimes it takes a family crisis to reveal the truth about dodgy relationships between family members we thought we knew so well.
Kindle copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via netgalley