Take Bea, a middle-aged, single, extravagantly literate schoolteacher, bullied by Marvin, her brashly successful businessman brother into flying to 1950s Paris in search of his long-absent, churlish son Julian.
Add Bea's Hollywood composer ex-husband Leo, who, ever since his opportunistic decampment from their marriage has cramped and consumed her life.
Mix in Julian's sister Iris, an obtuse and skittish twentysomething pursuing a doctorate in chemistry; a Romanian war refugee named Lili, both physically and emotionally scarred; Margaret, Marvin's "neurasthenic" WASP wife, driven to excremental painting; and Phillip, a charlatan healer and ladies' man from Philadelphia.
Shake them up and send them to luxurious rest homes and squalid bedsits. Have them read Kierkegaard and watch cartoons about health-conscious beavers, or concoct bogus salves, write symphonies and transcribe the Psalms into red-edged notebooks - and you've only begun to dive into the exuberance of Cynthia Ozick's latest novel.
Foreign Bodies, like Michael Cunningham's The Hours, may bow to the master whose work inspired it - not Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but Henry James's The Ambassadors - but it also kicks over the master's traces, introducing new characters and fresh elements of plot, and uncovering supplementary, sometimes radically different meanings in the events narrated.
Ozick's embrace of The Ambassadors isn't unprecedented: In 1955, just three years after the events in Foreign Bodies take place, Patricia Highsmith launched The Talented Mr. Ripley, her devilish version of how a wealthy American parent sends a questionable "ambassador" to fetch home a wayward son lost to the fleshpots of Europe.
The Ambassadors is a product of James's late phase, and has been compared to an hourglass in its flawless structuring; Linguistically it can seem as forbidding as one of haute cuisine pioneer Marie-Antoine Carême's vast confections - his pièces montées - might be to those used to snacking on cookies. Instead of an hourglass, Ozick has given us, to use James's own term, "a loose, baggy monster" accommodating, among other things, Yiddish folk tales, a series of letters, zigzags in time and space and digressions on the advent of television in America and the nature of a scherzo.
As for language, in place of James's filigree of circumvolution and ambiguity, we get overt statement and oodles of over-the-top-and-down-in-the-ditch prose: "Margaret who emptied her body of its malodorous fruits to daub smudged fecal fields," or, "How vile a butchery it is to wield the knife fated to eviscerate a brother's bowel." It's not just alliteration that Ozick is crazy for: Exclamation points abound, as do literary allusions both coy (a rest home called Suite Eyre, pronounced as in Jane Eyre) and dark (a reference to "black milk" taken from Paul Celan's Death Fugue). It's as if Ozick has seized the exquisitely written chamber music of James's masterpiece and arranged it for brass band; while there are passages as good as Gershwin's An American in Paris - many graced by marvellous images - there are frequent false notes, too.
What makes Foreign Bodies worth reading as a response to The Ambassadors, however, is the act of imaginative trespass it commits on the master's territory. One of the pivotal scenes in James's novel takes place at a party given by a famous sculptor to whose paradisal garden are invited not only aristocrats and bankers, generals and famous artists, but "even Jews." What a crucial corrective, then, that the principal characters of Ozick's version of James's paean to Paris are Jews, both tourists and survivors of the Shoah, and that the Paris evoked for us is one in which "Europe's wailing wall" has darkened the City of Light; in which radical poverty, dispossession and xenophobia make the gardens, public squares and galleries less playgrounds than deserts.
And what a coup Ozick pulls off in her re-creation of James's doomed heroine, the immeasurably charming, intelligent, "older woman," Madame de Vionnet, who has transformed her young American from callow and vulgar youth to connoisseur. Lili, 12 years older than the feckless Julian, is "improving" him, Bea finally understands, by "teaching him about death"; unlike Madame de Vionnet, who, however fine her consciousness, is still reduced to caring desperately for, and being abandoned by a mere homme moyen sensuel, Lili manages to create a bond with "luftmensh" Julian that offers them both a small measure of salvation.
For a consummate celebration of Paris and for a profound exploration of the tragic disjunction between what we wish to be true and what we can't escape knowing to be real, read The Ambassadors. But for an evocation of unspeakable loss and unfathomable love rooted in the nightmare of a history James couldn't begin to imagine, you couldn't do better than Foreign Bodies.
Janice Kulyk Keefer's latest novel is The Ladies' Lending Library. She teaches at the University of Guelph and in the Guelph-Humber MFA program in creative writing.