‘Expectations met’ – Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies centres around Bea Nightingale, a divorced, forty-eight year old teacher who lives inNew York. The first chapter consists of a short letter from Bea to her brother Marvin explaining that she has returned from Europe having failed to find Marvin’s errant son, Julian. And so Ozick sets up the juxtapositions that will run throughout the novel: Europe againstAmerica and family member against family member.

Bea has barely seen Marvin in more than twenty years. She’s met his daughter, Iris, once and has never seen Julian but Marvin employs her to search for the son that he wants to bring home, pressing ideas of ‘family responsibility’ onto her. Marvin’s problem with Julian is that he hasn’t become the son that he expected; he’s taken himself off toParis, where he’s been for three years, and shows no sign of returning. He’s had an article published in an American run magazine and intends to make it as a writer. Iris, on the other hand, is the seemingly perfect daughter, currently studying for a doctorate in chemistry – ‘the real thing’ not ‘the soft stuff’ of artistic pursuits.

Ozick not only considers the expectations that parents have of their children and siblings have of each other but the expectations we have of lovers and spouses. Marvin’s wife is mentally frail – a condition he blames on the extended absence of his son – and is admitted to a ‘rest home’ where she paints as part of her therapy; Bea’s ex-husband is a film composer, derided by Marvin for his profession. His grand piano dominates Bea’s apartment as – despite many years and two subsequent wives between them – she still believes that he will return to collect it.

The majority of the novel is told from the third person subjective, switching between the family members and the people they interact with – lovers and employers. Ozick’s strength is in the beauty of her writing and the distinct voices that she creates for each character making us empathise with every one of them despite their flaws. However, chapters are sometimes delivered outside of their chronology and it can take a moment to adjust and consider how this piece fits into the tale so far.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. The writing is exquisite, the plot moves along at a reasonable pace for a literary novel and Ozick leaves us considering our own familial and marital relationships. Expectations met.

Naomi Frisby

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