Who leaves a grand piano in the middle of their cramped New York flat for almost half their life without even playing it? Well that would be Bea Nightingale in Cynthia Ozick’s excellent and illuminating Foreign Bodies.
It (that is, the piano) belonged to her former husband, and the metaphor of a dead weight weighing Bea down and a giant potential space in her life for maybe creativity or love or passion is really quite excellently conceived.
I know I’m not meant to imagine myself into a book, but as a pianist the compulsion to play this imaginary piano in the pages of Ozick’s novel is overwhelming. What am I meant to do with that urge?
The storyline of the novel is rather complicated. We are led from America to Paris, then back again to New York, then back to Paris, then over to the west coast (to the owner of the piano), all in the vain attempt made by Bea’s brother Marvin to control her and his children. Marvin has already placed his wife in care, unable to deal with her mental well-being. In fact the scenes with the wife, although she is such a minor character, have stuck with me, strangely, the most of all. But the novel doesn’t really focus on Marvin; it has rather a patched-together perspective mainly dealing with Bea and her nephew Julian. This is partly told through letters between Bea and Marvin, which convey so brilliantly Ozick’s skill and character painting. I truly loathed Marvin!
What was unusual for me was that I very rarely have patience with characters who are unlikeable, yet with Ozick’s Foreign Bodies they are ALL frustrating and flawed. Somehow though Ozick compelled me to keep reading, and I even found myself enjoying the portrayals of such annoying characters.
Definitely one to re-read with time. Though probably not for all, as this excellent review by Kevinfromcanada makes clear with an apt use of metaphor.