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Book 53: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Book 53: Foreign Bodies.
Author: Cynthia Ozick, 2010.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1950s Europe/USA. Family Drama.
Other Details: Paperback. 255 pages.

Bea Nightingale is a middle-aged teacher of English in an improvised New York borough. Since the collapse of her short-lived marriage she had settled into a rather staid life. While on her first vacation to Europe during the summer of 1952, she accepts a plea from her estranged brother to seek out her nephew, who is living in Paris, and try and convince him to return home to California. Before long Bea finds herself tangled up in the lives of her brother's family.

This was the second of my Orange 2012 short-listed books. I certainly found it elegantly written and an engaging read even if not quite the page turner that The Song of Achilles had been for me. Despite its short length it manages to encompass personal themes such as a sense of displacement within a family and society as well as wider social and political issues.

I only discovered after finishing that Ozick had written Foreign Bodies with Henry James' The Ambassadors in mind. For most of her life she has been drawn to James' work and cited The Ambassadors as her favourite of his novels. While I was not familiar with this novel, a quick look at its synopsis and I could quickly see how she had used a similar plot-line as a starting point for her own explorations of similar themes.

Overall I felt its wider social themes such as the American Dream, post-War II recovery and continuing anti-Semitism in Europe and the US as well as the stirrings of the Cold War were well realised without over-powering the family drama at the heart of the story. Given that Ozick was an adult during the 1950s, it is perhaps not surprising that the sense of detail in the setting was so well realised.

I felt that Foreign Bodies has all the hallmarks of the kind of novel that receives literary awards and so I wasn't surprised to read it was the early favourite to win this year's Orange Prize. Even if not my favourite, it is probably the one I'd also back to win.

Tags: period fiction (20th century)

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