Foreign Bodies

By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

272 pp $26.

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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey


Cynthia Ozick takes Henry James'

The Ambassadors

and turns it upside down. Then she turns it inside out and shakes it, violently.

Foreign Bodies retells the James masterpiece of New World vs. Old World, but reverses its results. The recasting is raucous, funny, ferocious, and tragic. A literary master, as James was, Ozick makes all those qualities fit together seamlessly, and with heartbreaking effect.

It isn't necessary to have read The Ambassadors to make sense of Foreign Bodies, although a familiarity with it sharpens the contrast with the new novel (and The Ambassadors is well worth reading, in any event).

Readers of The Ambassadors will recall that the fiancee of the middle-aged Lambert Strether sent him to Paris to retrieve her son, Chad, from Europe and from the clutches of a Frenchwoman who is assumed to be unsavory. Chad was to be brought home to Massachusetts to run the family business. Assumptions turned out to be wrong, and, while many of the characters found happy endings, Strether didn't. He was a martyr to his sense of decency.

Bea Nightingale, on the other hand, will be a martyr to no one. She, too, has been sent on a mission in Paris to retrieve a wayward son who has become involved with an older European woman. It's the summer of 1952, and Bea, long divorced and 48, is mightily peeved at her brother, Marvin Nachtigall, who demands that she bring back his son, Julian.

As the novel opens, Bea is on vacation in Paris in a brutal heat wave, and she is steamed: Marvin has hijacked her vacation in service of finding the nephew she has never met. Postwar Europe isn't so great either: "Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies' room, and where it seemed 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!"

Bea anglicized her name, but nothing else about her life as a New York schoolteacher and a child of Jewish immigrants. Marvin, his mother's favorite and now a wealthy resident of sunny California, kept his name, but anglicized everything else. That includes marriage to an East Coast WASP from a prominent family.

But events are handing Bea the means to even things up. Her niece, Iris, whom she knows little better than Julian, is dispatched by Marvin to New York upon Bea's return home to "brief" Bea on Julian. Bea will return to Paris, Marvin's plan goes, and bring Julian back. But Iris, Marvin's brilliant, favored child, has other plans and heads to Paris herself - with Bea's complicity.

"It came to Bea that the two of them, Iris and Marvin, had ceded to her the means to punish: the father for his tyranny, the daughter for her evasions." (The pun on Bea's name is a subtle Ozick touch.)

Bea's deceptions and evasion even draw in her ex-husband, Leo, now a well-to-do movie composer who lives near Marvin. Leo's piano, left in Bea's tiny apartment all those years ago, represents all the unfinished business of their marriage.

Bea is a nightingale who delivers a song to Leo, after a fashion, and discordance to her family.

As summer's heat fades, the novel's tone chills, from angrily comic to somber. Ozick executes the transformation flawlessly during a scene in which Bea visits (secretly, of course) her sister-in-law, Margaret, at a tony sanatorium: Margaret's face "was one of those perfected faces, geometrically proportioned and aligned, that are beautiful on a girl of eighteen but wear badly: Too much symmetry, like good manners early inculcated, turns flat."

It's a subtly brilliant mixture of pity, dignity, and dispassion.

Julian, meanwhile, who has seemed insubstantial and a bit laughable, has ventured deeper into the heart of Europe's dark soul by marrying Lili, who fled Romania and the war that murdered her family: "Something of Lili was creeping into Julian. . . . He had married a woman who was teaching him the knowledge of death."

Iris learns something of that, too. In Paris and after, all of her promise, her chances for happiness, unravel. She becomes a martyr like Lambert Strether. Marvin's family sinks into hollowness and despair.

And Bea Nightingale, the agent of so much chaos, now settled back into her school, prepares to take up the teaching of King Lear.

Rhonda Dickey is an Inquirer editor. Contact her at 215-854-2381

or rdickey@phillynews.com.