Decades ago, when Cynthia Ozick completed her master's degree at Ohio State University, she wrote her thesis on the late novels of Henry James. She's been enamored of his work ever since, and in her sixth novel, "Foreign Bodies," she offers a retelling of his final novel.
Yet it isn't necessary to have read "The Ambassadors" to appreciate her novel; in fact "Foreign Bodies" fares better if, like any book, it is viewed on its own terms. (Ozick's story isn't a strict retelling, anyway.)
Still, it's useful to know the essential plot of "The Ambassadors": A middle-aged American named Lambert Strether has been dispatched to Paris by his wealthy fiancee to retrieve her son Chad, whom she's determined to "save" from decadent European influence. Strether, however, is enthralled by Parisian culture and allows the ostensibly wayward young man to stay.
"Foreign Bodies" updates the story to 1952, when America was aglow with optimism and innocence as Europe, "scarred and exhausted," still reeled from the aftermath of World War II. Here the reluctant ambassador is a 48-year-old New York divorcee named Bea Nightingale. Her imperious, narcissistic brother, Marvin - who has caused her to suffer a lifetime "of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred" - demands that she interrupt her European holiday to retrieve his prodigal son, Julian, from Paris.
At 23, Julian can easily manage his own affairs, and even his sister Iris agrees. "Dad won't let anyone be," she explains to her aunt, adding that Julian is "a parasite, he hasn't got an ounce of practicality, he doesn't know what he wants, no focus, too emotional" and that any attempt to "rescue" him is futile. But no one defies Marvin.
As it turns out, Julian has fallen in love with and married Lili, an older, widowed Romanian woman whose family was killed in the Holocaust. Bea soon finds herself unwillingly caught in the tumult of her brother's family issues, and dealing again with her ex-husband, Leo, a pretentious Hollywood composer, after Marvin tries to enlist Leo's help on Julian's behalf. Just as Julian has embarked on a journey of self-discovery, so too does Bea, in midlife. Yet despite her good intentions, she causes a good deal of harm.
At the novel's end, Bea feels "Her heart in its cage a foreign body." The title also refers to the incongruity between Europe and America at midcentury, when American expats came searching naively (some might say arrogantly) for a Europe that no longer existed. These people "were little more than literary tourists on a long visit, besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein."
Ozick wrests plenty of melodrama from her cast of characters but doesn't quite achieve Jamesian heights of social observation and nuance. Still, "Foreign Bodies" is compelling and dark, and its last line plaintive and chilling. Ozick offers no hint at the beginning of just how ravaged these lives will be by the story's end.
FOREIGN BODIES, by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $26.