It’s 1952, in the hottest summer that Paris has had since before the war.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2012

Beatrice writes to her brother, Marvin, saying “Paris was terrible”, and she has little else to report.

She has travelled there, at Marvin’s request, to look for Marvin’s son, Julian.

But although there were “foreigners all over Paris, suffering together with the native population”, she does not find her nephew.

“These strangers fell into two parties — one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelsome, forlorn: a squad of volatile maundering ghosts.”

This tale of foreign bodies is a retelling of Henry James’ 1903 novel The Ambassadors, in which Strether travels to Europe to bring back someone else’s son, who is expected to return to work in the family business.

Strether is an ambassador, acting on behalf of another, but he is conflicted because he finds the young man to be living a life superior to that he was living when he was in America. In Foreign Bodies, Beatrice is the ambassador, and she, too, is conflicted.

The main source of conflict for Beatrice is rooted in her relationship with Marvin. She hadn’t wanted to travel to Paris, complains bitterly about every aspect of European life, and resents the disruption to her quiet existence as a teacher in NYC. And, all for nothing.

“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.”

Perhaps this is a difference between Foreign Bodies and The Ambassadors, a complexity that Cynthia Ozick has introduced to the tale, for it would seem that Strether does not have this additional complication. But Beatrice, it seems, is more inclined to sympathize with Julian from the beginning, whereas perhaps Strether is only persuaded by his experiences in Europe with the young man, by what he observes there directly, rather than an inclination.

Beatrice is dispatched as an ambassador, albeit unwillingly, although she can readily understand how Julian would want to free himself from his father’s influence. She doesn’t know the boy at all, but she wanted the same thing from her own father, and she still feels entangled by her ties to her brother.

In fact, Beatrice is a dishonest ambassador. She even pretends to make another trip to Paris but, in fact, she allows Julian’s sister to travel to see him instead, when Iris pleads for this arrangement.

Not a Henry James novel that I’ve read

Iris is overtly sympathetic to her brother and has, in fact, been in communication with him throughout his absence, although their father is unaware of this.

In this sense, both son and daughter are not only foreign bodies as Americans in Paris, but they are foreign bodies to their own father, even when in America. (And they are equally foreign to Beatrice, who is their aunt in name only.)

Much of the action in Foreign Bodies is internal. Characters debate inwardly whether they should pursue personal happiness or adhere to a sense of duty.

The tension that propels the narrative is rooted in relationships, in subtle exchanges and observations.

“She stood and listened. Noiselessness behind the door, a ferocity of expectation – herself caught in a fixity, a movie-still excised from a scene of crisis, the frozen moment of her finger lifted, approaching the button, the button that was about to violate the silence behind the door (Iris’s lifted finger seconds before it fell blindly on a violated key)….”

The question of liberation — whether from a set of familial expectations or from a wider swath of cultural expectations — resounds in almost every character’s storyline.

One distinct difference between The Ambassadors and Foreign Bodies is that the female characters are at the heart of Cynthia Ozick’s novel. Particularly, Julian’s sister, Iris, plays an integral role.

Even Marvin comes to see that. “Surely there was a lesson in it — not for his boy, the luckless carrier of a predetermined deficiency, but for his daughter.”

Iris travelled to Paris not so much to pursue Julian but to recognize him, to witness the happiness that he claimed to have found there. But when she discovers her brother — with the woman that Beatrice had heard about, a girlfriend of sorts, the landlady had said — Iris has her own difficulties accepting the life that Julian is living now.

Among other disappointments, she doesn’t care for Lili, despite Julian’s fondness for her. (Lili, too, is an ambassador of sorts, but that’s another story.)

An orange to admire

“An aimless creature like herself, but worse, human debris discharged from the diseased bowel of Eastern Europe – Romania, where was it really, what did it signify – and wouldn’t this, Iris recognized, have been her father’s thought precisely? There was no way to escape her father: he lived inside her brain. She saw that Julian had chosen Europe. He meant to stay. He would never come home.”

In this way, Iris carries the foreign body of her father in her own thoughts. In seeking to assist Julian in escaping their father’s influence, she has, paradoxically, become uncomfortably aware of her own confinement.

“In Paris it always begins so beautifully!” she observes.

Like The Ambassadors, Foreign Bodies is superficially a story about European and American cities and the lives lived therein, but it is truly a story about the places in which we can be most like ourselves.

This is less to do with relationships between nations and more to do with personal alliances; foreign bodies might well exert a significant influence, but it’s the bodies we know, those we elect to keep close, who affect the greatest changes in our lives.

But, ironically, as the characters in Foreign Bodies search for a homeland, be that a country or a single person, they turn inward; many readers will be frustrated by the sense of disconnection, by the sense of being a foreign body to this literary work. Perhaps it is a novel that is easier to admire than adore.

ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 4 of 20
Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies 

Originality Deliberately builds upon an established text: old story, new slant
Readability  Narrative is driven by psychological observations and realizations
Author’s voice Formal, distanced, dense and finely-worked prose
Narrative structure Chronological, some letters, multiple POVs
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Critically acclaimed author of six novels (the first published in 1966)