Monday, August 15, 2011

The Foreigners by Maxine Swann — 272 pgs

The ForeignersIn this tense and erotically charged new novel from Maxine Swann, three very different women experience life in Buenos Aires, Argentina amid a backdrop of tropical torpor and haute society. When Daisy, an American divorcee, escapes to Argentina after a medical scare, she’s at first withdrawn and alienated from her new surroundings and their inhabitants. When one day she’s discovered by Leonarda, a young Argentine woman with a strange sprightly outlook that hides a deep streak of masochism, Daisy is thrown headlong into a very confusing world of desire, repulsion and jealousy. Meanwhile, Isolde, a beautiful Austrian, is trying to use her looks and connections to climb into the upper echelons of Argentine society, but is finding that her brash neediness is undoing all of her careful work of ingratiating herself with the upper-class locals. As Isolde and Daisy experience a new world with very different rules than they’re used to, they’ll come face to face with their insecurities and strengths in a place where appearances and motives may be deceiving, and where their passions and fears are juxtaposed with the lives they left behind.

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Foreigners. I had thought it would be a quiet story of a few women’s adventures abroad, with an emphasis on character development and a look into the exotic locale of Argentina. What I got was a dizzying ride into the heart of two very different women on the edge of a society that’s sometimes cruel and that prided itself on appearances and facades that were designed to make foreigners feel superior while being silently sneered at in private.

When Daisy arrives in Argentina, ostensibly to work on a grant project, she’s more aimless than involved, but that all changes when young Leonarda chooses her as a target for her whirlwind courtship and strange power plays. As the two get caught up in increasingly bizarre and dangerous forays, Daisy is held emotionally captive by a woman who seems to like to have people in her thrall and who executes malevolent games of desire and violence. As Daisy and Leonarda wind their way through the city, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what was behind Leonarda’s manipulations and disturbing trysts with a man that she goaded Daisy into agreeing to humiliate. It was a volatile situation that grabbed my by the throat, and though I got the impression that Daisy felt the danger too, it didn’t stop her from being fully inveigled by the games Leonarda was playing. Working on Daisy’s visceral side, Leonarda began to warp her slowly, baiting her with passion, attention and complicity. It was a heady mix for Daisy, and for myself, and I began to see that although Daisy thought she had things under control, Leonarda was like a wild animal who would not be contained. The end result was a mix of obsession and jealousy that pricked Daisy violently and caused her to behave in some very uncharacteristic ways.

The situation with Isolde was also uncomfortable. Coming to Argentina seemed to be Isolde’s way of escaping the conundrum of settling down like the other women from her hometown. Isolde was an emotionally needy woman who tried to insinuate herself into the quasi-aristocracy of Argentina but who somehow kept getting it wrong. She was constantly humiliating and debasing herself in her desire to be at the center of the action, and her unfortunate relationships with all the wrong men kept her from being taken seriously in the right circles. Isolde was a beautiful woman, but along with her penchant for being pushy and overbearing, she was also running out of money and had no way of obtaining what she needed other than by promoting herself as an international art procurer. This was fraught with problems because Isolde had greatly embellished her credentials and experience, and often she would negate her chances by becoming romantically involved with her prospective employers. In Isolde there was a constant flux of self-sabotaging behavior that for some reason she refused to acknowledge or rectify. Isolde was constantly at war with herself and often her fear of being alone and unwanted made her do some very unwise things.

As things speed towards a conclusion, the situation between Leonarda and Daisy begins to turn very strange, with the prey becoming the predator. But is this merely what Daisy wants to believe, and will she ever really be able to turn the tables on a woman who refuses to be subdued and marginalized? Isolde, too, finds herself in very foreign straights and must come to accept a life that at times horrifies and embarrasses her. It’s at this point that the story begins to creep into the edges of the readers psyche and crouches there, waiting to spring into its final haunting conclusion. Obsession and mayhem turn to debasement and cruelty for one, and expectations come crashing down for the other, into a reality that is unpleasant and tinged with regret. Both women, seeing the futility of the lives they’ve led, begin to come to terms with what they’ve become and realize that there is indeed a way out.

I was greatly impressed with Maxine Swann’s narrative, and it was thrilling to be brought to the brink of suspense and discomfort by her elegant and spare prose. This was an emotionally charged book that kept me constantly reevaluating and that felt dire albeit in a very quiet way. It was also erotic at points without being vulgar, its strangeness tempered with a curious feeling of intimacy. I would certainly recommend this book to people who are looking for something different that will penetrate their sensibilities in a slightly untoward way. A fantastic read, and one that I would highly recommend.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

14 comments:

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Beautiful review. What a stunning book. I really love the cover though it's a bit creepy.

Aths said...

I heard of this one earlier and was really intrigued by it. I'm glad that you recommend it because I was quite fascinated with the story line when I came across it. It sounds like one that I would identify it. Beautiful review!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Very intriguing review!

Jenna said...

This one sounds great! I love books that can make me feel a little uncomfortable without becoming extreme or vulgar. The fact that the book was thrilling and interesting even when the characters aren't the nicest of people makes this one very promising. Great review!

Audra said...

This sounds marvelous -- reminds me a bit of a Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies (I believe that's the story I'm thinking of) -- there's something so appealing about unappealing characters! ;)

bermudaonion said...

I adore the cover of that book, so I've been curious about it. After your review, I think I'll check it out the next time I'm in a bookstore.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Ooh, you've really got my attention - tense, erotic without being vulgar, predator becomes the prey ... It sounds like a foreign film put on the page --> I'll be looking for THE FOREIGNERS!

Jenny said...

Wow, my curiosity has totally been piqued. Sounds different but thrilling... I actually have been interested in books about Argentina but feel like there aren't that many out there I'll add this to the list!

Amy said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review, Heather, it's fantastic. I wish I enjoyed the book as much as you did!

Geosi said...

Nicely rendered review. Thanks.

Marie said...

Sounds very interesting! Nice review.I like that the author walked the line between erotic and icky.

Steph said...

At first I didn't think this would be my kind of book, but your review has definitely convinced me otherwise! This one sounds so sultry and taut... I will have to check it out.

Darlene said...

Fantastic review Heather! This book sounds amazing. I don't remember seeing this one around at all but it definitely sounds intriguing. I love the cover too - very cool.

TheBookGirl said...

I don't remember the last time I read something set in Argentina. It seems as though the author gives a real sense of the city, which I love, and the story sounds fascinating and sort of eerie at the same time.

Great review as always :)

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