Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: The Foreigners by Maxine Swann

The Foreigners by Maxine Swann

Date Published: August 2011
ISBN: 978-1594488306
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.0 out of 5

Publisher’s Book Summary: A glittering, energetic novel about three women-each experiencing an awakening in the gloriously conflicted and sexy city of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires is a city of Parisian affections and national anxiety, of amorous young lovers, seedy ports, flooded slums, and a dazzling social elite. Into this heady maze of contradiction and possibility enter two women: Daisy, an American divorcée; and Isolde, a beautiful, lonely Austrian. In Buenos Aires, Isolde finds that her blond European looks afford her entrée to the kind of elite, alluring social world she never would have had access to in her home country, but her ascension also sets her up for a long, surprising fall. Meanwhile, Daisy joins forces with Leonarda, a chameleonic Argentine with radical dreams of rebellion, who transfixes Daisy with her wild effervescence. Soon, Daisy is throwing off her American earnestness and engaging in a degree of passion, manipulation, and risk-taking in a way she never has before. Buenos Aires has allowed her to become someone else.
Against the throbbing backdrop of this shimmering and decadent city- almost a character in itself-Maxine Swann has created a stunning narrative of reawakened sensuality and compulsive desire that simultaneously explores with remarkable acuity themes of foreignness, displacement, and the trembling metamorphoses that arise from such states. From the award-winning, critically celebrated author of Flower Children, The Foreigners is a startlingly bold and original, unforgettable next novel.

My Thoughts: I finished this book last week but I needed to think about it for several days. I'm still a little unsure what to say about The Foreigners. This is the first book I've read that is set in Buenos Aires. I was really looking forward to reading The Foreigners for the setting alone, especially since the book summary tells us the city is "almost a character in itself". Unfortunately, I didn't find this to be the case. We’re told a little bit about Buenos Aires at various points throughout the book and even more about the tourists or foreigners who come to Buenos Aires. The Foreigners, primarily although, is a story about the course of the friendships between Daisy and the two women she meets in Buenos Aires, Leonarda and Isolde as well as the intriguing trajectory of Isolde‘s life.

Daisy, the protagonist of the novel, escapes to Buenos Aires after her 9-year marriage ends in divorce. She doesn't handle the stress and disappointment of divorce well physically or psychologically and is hospitalized after a frightening fainting spell. Daisy's friend suggests she get away. Through him, Daisy obtains a grant to study the water system in Buenos Aires.

Daisy visits the Silver river and some other bodies of water in Buenos Aires after sharing what she’s read about them and the water situation in Buenos Aires. In addition, Daisy occasionally tells about an area of the city she read about or shares glimpses of the different neighborhoods she walks through or the places where she goes for drinks or dinner. Rather than focus on the city itself, it's the tourists, the foreigners who come to Buenos Aires and how they are received by the residents that Daisy learns more about when she temporarily moves to Buenos Aires. The foreigners "fall into categories" depending on where they come from and why they come. Europeans or Americans, as long as they are "basically decently physically assembled" are considered upper class unless proven otherwise. I found the passages about Buenos Aires, foreigners and Daisy's conversations with Argentineans and other tourists about life in Buenos Aires one of the most interesting aspects of the book. These sections in the book were written in beautiful, compelling prose. I would have liked more of this writing and wish it had been weaved into the story rather than appear in the beginning or end of a chapter.

Maxine Swann is quite adept at creating eccentric, bizarre and fascinating characters. Daisy is the main character and also the first-person narrator. She is lost and at loose-ends after her divorce. She seems healthy, physically now but there's a disconnect between her and life which makes it difficult to relate to and connect with her. Unfortunately, I had similar difficulty with the two women Daisy befriends. Leonarda is an Argentine who is "interested in foreigners". She is moody, immature, has serious issues with control and enjoys shocking people. I'm not sure whether Leonarda is crazy or simply absurd. Maybe both. The first night Daisy meets her, Leonarda admits to staking Daisy, kisses Daisy in an erotic, sensual manner to shock some men in a bar and steals a policeman's hat right off his head and, laughing, runs away leaving Daisy standing with the policeman.

It becomes evident early in the book that Leonarda has a very loose relationship with telling the truth. I’m not sure if this is on purpose or if it’s part of her ’eccentricities”. Nevertheless, Daisy becomes enchanted with her and wants to be with Leonarda constantly. When their relationship becomes physical, Daisy becomes obsessed almost unable to keep her hands off Leonarda when they‘re together. When Leonarda decides they are going to hunt human "prey" and picks a victim imagining hurting or killing him, I was shocked. Daisy was, too, sometimes!

Isolde is the other woman Daisy befriends. She is Austrian, blonde and beautiful. She easily fits in with the elite class and loves moving in their circles. She struggles because, although she looks the part, she doesn't have the money she needs to comfortably fit in. Appearance is everything to Isolde. She's a vain, very superficial woman and extremely lonely. When not attending cocktail parties and sleeping with one of them men she's met, Isolde spends her time tending to her appearance and trying to come up with a respectable way to make money to afford the lifestyle she loves. Daisy and Isolde have little in common but Isolde treats Daisy as her confidant Daisy introduced Isolde to Leonarda but then became jealous when they got along! Isolde’s life takes a surprising and unexpected course towards the end of the book

These characters are fascinating but I wasn't able to relate to them or identify with them. Ms. Swann doesn't fully develop the women, barely referencing their past lives. Leonarda, for instance, speaks of her mother as "the monster" but says nothing more about her until the day Daisy compliments her nails and Leonarda says her mother painted them. We're left to wonder if her mother is the reason for Leonarda's nutty behavior or is there something else going on. After a while, the behavior of all the women becomes tiresome. Daisy also becomes friendly with Gabriel. He’s a secondary character who I really liked and hoped to see more. The biggest problem I had with The Foreigners is there’s no plot to the story. I kept waiting for something big to happen, a climax of sorts, but the story just meandered a long. Although The Foreigners didn’t work for me, I’m not finished reading Ms. Swann’s work and will be picking up her other books when I have the chance.

Thank you to the publisher, Riverhead Books for the opportunity to read and review The Foreigners.


  1. Leonarda sounds like a fascinating character, but that wouldn't be enough to make a book for me. Plot is essential!

  2. Very comprehensive review. Not my kind of book but I thought you did it justice. Good job.

  3. The interesting setting and the characters seem to be the focus of the book. I'd love to read this to see if the characters alone are worth it! Very nice review.

  4. It does sound different … and based on what you said, I'm not sure it is a good fit for me either.

  5. I just finished this one the other day and wrote my review to be posted on Monday. I think I liked this one a lot more than you did, and part of the reason was because of the ambiguity and the almost claustrophobic feelings it evoked in me. I can't say it was a comfortable read, because a lot of it left me feeling a little disturbed, but there was something about it that made me emotionally invested and very, very intrigued. I particularly was enthralled between the relationship between Daisy and Leonarda, which I thought felt dangerous and illicit. I am sorry that this one didn't work for you as well as it did for me, but I really appreciated reading your thoughts and getting a fresh perspective.