Friday, July 3, 2015

Overtures with a Nightingale

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Bea's overbearing brother Marvin wants her to go to Paris and get his son Julian to come home, or he'll stop sending him money. He can't do it himself, he's far too busy with his important work and California is so far away from Europe. Bea is in New York and is "only" an English literature teacher, so Marvin figures it makes sense for her to go. The problem is that Bea has never met her nephew Julian or her niece Iris, who wants to get involved in her father's scheme (unbeknownst to Marvin). Bea also hardly knows Marvin's wife Margaret, who has been very unstable lately, and Marvin thinks getting her son back might cure her. Although Bea only reluctantly agrees, she can't deny the mission will let her escape from her solitary life for a while. What Bea doesn't bargain on is the storm her journeys spark, even touching Leo Coopersmith, the composer to whom Bea was briefly married.

There is much more to this Orange Prize winning novel than just this summary can describe. However, what is more important than the story and its various elements is how Ozick presents it all. As I read this book, it initially seemed that the metaphor of a storm was very appropriate for how this book developed. First, there are the darkening clouds, with Marvin at the head of it all, which quickly turns threatening and blustering, bearing down on everything and everyone in his path. As each wave makes Bea and the others strive to find shelter, Marvin continues to gather strength, and douses everyone with his fury.

As I got further into this story, I realized that the best metaphor for this novel wasn't a storm at all. It was, in fact, more like a piece of music. At the center of the work, we have Bea as our theme. The variations on that theme are everyone around her, who both interact with her, and act alongside her, either in harmony or with dissonance. All the while, these separate 'tunes' (if you will) assist Bea to developing into a more elaborate composition. This made even more sense because of Ozick's addition of Bea's composer ex-husband. Here was a man who had so much control over Bea's life that she lost herself in him, and allowed herself to let his career usurp her own. Only now, many years later, does Bea start to realize that she had a song of her own. The irony here is that her brother Marvin's forcing her to do his bidding is the impetus to Bea discovering just how forceful she is herself. All of this is either parallel or in sharp contrast to all of the other characters.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is that Ozick places it during the early 1950s. By doing this, she includes ravaged post-war Europe to be yet another metaphor to these people's lives. This also allows Ozick to take advantage of the somewhat slower pace of life at the time, and enriches the text with several handwritten letter communications between the characters. These letters help with the story telling, and further contribute to the character development, such as when we see a character choosing to send something harshly worded or instead opting to post missives that are more diplomatic.

Moreover, what really impressed me with this book was how Ozick is able to be so subtly ironic. On the back cover of the book, The Guardian calls this a "mordant examination of displacement and inheritance." I can only partially agree with this, since the more caustic Bea and most of the characters become, the softer several of them feel. In the same way, the more entangled Bea becomes in the lives of relatives she feels so disconnected with, the more connected she feels to the person she really is, but never knew was there.

In short, this novel is masterful in how ultimately simple and evocative it is, while involving such complex emotions and relationships. Each character has a role to play, no matter how minor, and each event leads to some type of discovery. Furthermore, everything here comes together beautifully, even when we realize that some things have no real conclusion. This is Ozick's true talent, and why I'll be reading many more of her works from now on. Therefore, I highly recommend this novel, and can give it a full five out of five stars. (PS: If any of this review is confusing, including the title, you'll just have to read the book to understand what I mean.) 

"Foreign Bodies" by Cynthia Ozick is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you.