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Originally published Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

Cynthia Ozick's 'Foreign Bodies' fails to hit the mark

A review of Cynthia Ozick's "Foreign Bodies," a recasting of Henry James' "The Ambassadors," a mystifying misfire.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Foreign Bodies'

by Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin, 255 pp., $26

"Crude" and "thin" and "choppy" aren't words I'd normally use in describing a Cynthia Ozick novel. But they're what come to mind after reading her baffling new "photographic negative" of Henry James' "The Ambassadors."

"Foreign Bodies," taking its template from James' 1903 masterpiece (a worried American mother sends emissaries to Paris to see what's keeping her son from returning to the States), switches some genders around and pushes the action 50 years forward to 1952, when Europe, post-Holocaust, has revealed itself to be the deadly antithesis of the liberating cultural mecca it was for James' characters.

It's a great premise — disappointingly handled.

One pleasure of "The Ambassadors," once you've penetrated James' late prose style, is the way its action is triggered by a character you never see. Mrs. Newsome, eager to get her Chad back home, may be the puppet-master. But all you ever glimpse of her is the strings she wields.

In "Foreign Bodies," Mrs. Newsome has become Marvin Nachtigall. And his voice — boorish, clueless, abusive — starts blaring at you on page 9, as he harangues his sister, Beatrice, into retrieving his son Julian from the City of Light.

In James' novel, Chad is a charmer, as is his Paris companion, Madame de Vionnet. In Ozick's, Julian is a whiney poet of dubious talents whose companion Lili, a Holocaust survivor, is teaching him "the knowledge of death."

Ozick introduces this bracing, brutal twist without really developing it. Instead we get Marvin's possibly crazy wife, Julian's skittish sister, Beatrice's ex-husband from decades ago and a senselessly scrambled chronology. We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.

Ozick can be brilliant, but she badly misfires here.

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