Cynthia Ozick, author of The Shawl and Trust: A Novel, two of my favorite books, has written a gem of a novel in Foreign Bodies. A slithering and taut comedy of errors, this book examines issues of betrayal and trust, literal and emotional exile, regret and rage, Judaism in post-World War II Europe and the meaning of art in one's life. While based on themes similar to Henry James' The Ambassadors, this novel is distinctly and uniquely Ozick's.
It is 1952 and 48 year-old Bea Nightingale has been teaching English to boys in a technical school for decades. They are more interested in other things than Shakespeare and Dickens but Bea gives it her best shot each semester. Once briefly married to Leo, a composer and pianist, Bea has been divorced for decades and Leo has gone on to do very well as a composer of scores for Hollywood movies. After Leo left Bea, he also left his grand piano which takes up a huge place in Bea's small Manhattan apartment and symbolizes several things to her - regret, the importance of art, and betrayal. Leo was supposed to pick up the piano and never did. It has sat untouched for years, an homage to Bea's anger and loss, along with its symbolic meaning of art as creation.
One day, out of the blue, Bea gets a letter from her semi-estranged brother, Marvin, asking her to to find his son Julian, an ex-pat who took a college year abroad and has not returned after three years. Marvin is a legend in his own mind, an arrogant, controlling, rude man who has made his fortune in airline parts in California. His wife Margaret, is a blue-blood who Marvin met at Princeton when he was there on scholarship. She is now in a rehab center ostensibly because the loss of Julian has sent her over the edge. Julian was always the lost child, the one who Marvin considered a loss. He had his head in the clouds and his desire was to write though Marvin wanted him to become a scientist. He has one other child, Iris, who is on the mark and following Marvin's goals for her to become a scientist. Marvin tells Bea in his letter, that he knows she is going on holiday to Paris and he'd like her to look up Julian and get him to come home. He feels that she must do this for what else does she do in her life but teach thugs. (As a matter of clarity, Marvin's last name is Nachtigal and Bea's is Nightingale. She changed her name because she thought it would be easier for her students to pronounce).
On Bea's trip to Paris, she makes two minor attempts at the end of her trip to contact Julian but is unsuccessful. He has already left his apartment and his where-abouts are unknown. Bea returns to New York and gets a scathing letter from Marvin all but ripping her to shreds. How she is able to stand his abuse is a comment on her own sense of self-deprecation. Marvin has a new idea. His daughter Iris is close to Julian and knows him well. He will send Iris to Bea's for a few days and she will tell Bea all about Julian and then Bea will again venture to Paris 'knowing' Julian and better able to find him. What ends up happening however is the beginning of a long line of betrayals for which Bea is responsible. Iris does come to New York but instead of Bea going to Paris, Iris goes and Bea makes up a story to Marvin about what is happening. Whatever Bea touches comes back inside-out.
Iris writes to Bea and tells her she plans to stay in Paris. Bea goes back to Paris, this time in search of Iris as well as Julian. What Bea finds in Europe is that Julian is married to Lili, a Romanian holocaust survivor several years older than him. He works part-time in cafes and lives on the money that Marvin sends him. Julian and Iris want nothing to do with Bea and give her the cold shoulder. Instead of returning to Manhattan, Bea impulsively flies to California and contacts her ex-husband, starting off a chain of events that leads to artistic obsession. She also contacts Margaret in her rest home which also leads to dire consequences.
Bea's betrayals are numerous and though often done with good intentions, end up with horrible repercussions. She is passive in her life but feels like she is able to take control when it comes to others. She has this grandiose sense of what is right for those around her. Bea gives a lot of thought to exile and sense of place and these themes resonate throughout the book. While Julian has chosen to exile himself from his father emotionally and as an ex-patriate, Marvin then chooses to exile Julian from his life unless Julian is willing to take a bribe and come home. Bea again intervenes and betrays Marvin. It is hard to see what is going on in Bea's mind but there are a lot of deep feelings, especially anger, rage, and regret. While her actions might seem magnanimous to her, they often seem controlling, misguided and horrific to the reader.
Cynthia Ozick has created a small treasure with this novel. Its twists and turns, keeping the reader enthralled and emotionally transfixed. We are led through a maze of human frailty, often disguised as strength, as we are swept away with the undercurrents of duplicity and displacement. This is a must-read for Ozick fans and, for those not familiar with her writing, a good place to start.