Old loves die hard and have lasting consequences; so we learn from Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00). Speaking of old loves, much has been made of Ozick’s early and ongoing literary love affair with Henry James. Foreign Bodies, an homage to her master, will have bookish readers puzzling out correspondences to James’ The Ambassadors as she retells that story with an ingenious twist; her Paris in 1952 is still reeling from the aftershocks of WW II. It is a gray and foreboding city, teeming with refugees. “They were Europeans whom Europe had set upon; they wore Europe’s tattoo.” “Though they had washed up in Paris, the war was still with them.” To this Paris, Bea Nightingale, Ozick’s female version of James’ ambassador, Lambert Strether, is sent by her brother Marvin to fetch home his son Julian, who seems after three years away to have been swallowed up by Europe. She finds Julian in thrall to Lili, a Holocaust survivor.
But just as you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread, you don’t have to be an English major to enjoy Ozick’s wondrous accomplishments in her latest work. Bea Nightingale, who resembles an earlier Ozick protagonist, Ruth Puttermesser of The Puttermesser Papers, is a single, middle-aged, feisty, independent New Yorker. At 19, the young Bea shamefacedly told her fiancé, Leo, that her ambition was to “…make my mark in this world.” As the story opens, one would think that aspiration a dream deferred, or perhaps one never to be fulfilled.
Bea, now 43, lives in a tiny apartment dominated by Leo’s huge grand piano, left behind after their divorce. She became a school teacher to support Leo’s dreams of composing, and spends her days teaching English to great hulks of young men who mock her efforts. Always it seems that she has settled for second best. Marvin went to Princeton; she was consigned by family economics to a city college. Leo composed; she had to make her mark on unruly school boys.
All along, buoyed by strong women, in particular, Lili, the refugee who has taken up with Julian, Bea both wreaks havoc and saves lives. She buzzes from New York City to Paris, to Los Angeles, home to brother Marvin, his neurasthenic and patrician wife and Leo, her ex, back to Paris and then to her New York apartment suddenly made larger by the removal of that foreboding piano. At first, Bea does not know what to make of Lili. Is she an opportunist hoping to cash in on Julian’s wealthy background? Or is she a survivor of unspeakable tragedy hoping to rescue Julian from his drifting, vapid life? Bea herself lies, thwarts and meddles at every turn. Is it for revenge on the men who have denigrated her, or is she opting for life for Marvin’s Julian and daughter Iris and for Lili, and ultimately for herself? “How good you are!” says Lili to Bea, a telling judgment. How good Bea truly is, and how indelible her mark, are questions readers will ask in this satisfying, provocative and brilliant novel.