The Foreigners

Get to the end of the opening sentence of The Foreigners, Maxine Swann’s lush and erotic third novel, and right away, you have to start again.

“The amount of pollen that comes in on travelers’ sleeves is vastly disproportionate to the number of species that hold.” That hold? Hold what — the pollen? Maybe, maybe not. What matters is the thought that follows,  a brief meditation on the plants that succeed in a strange land and those that fail, a signpost for where the story is headed. An odd start, but The Foreigners isn’t so much a narrative as a fever dream, an unsettling rush of actions and impressions. The novel’s organizing principle rests not on plot but on the intersecting lives of three women: Daisy, the American divorcée; Leonarda, a seductive Argentine; and Isolde, an Austrian émigré who pops in and out of the story at uneven intervals.

Daisy is our narrator, thirty-five and at loose ends. The failure of her nine-year marriage brought on fainting spells so severe, she moved from the U.S. to Buenos Aires to escape. Though she’s launched from a country and circumstance we understand, the adventure she seeks out can’t be found in the neatly curated pages of a Fodor’s guide.

It’s 2002 and Argentina, in the midst of economic collapse, is in dire straits. Inflation is rampant, bank accounts are frozen, and everyone from indigent garbage pickers to the sheltered upper class faces financial ruin. It’s from this precipice that Daisy gazes at her new city, and finds herself exhilarated.

The city would abruptly change the subject. I had felt this from the start. You were walking along a smooth Palermo street lined with bars and shops and would suddenly stumble into a wasteland, grass and dirt. Or you looked through a doorway into a huge empty hole. It was an unfinished city, but not only that. It seemed interminable, an interminable job. This was also what I liked.

Soon after renting an apartment in a vast, empty building, Daisy meets the twenty-eight-year-old Leonarda. Wild and enigmatic, Leonarda shows Daisy a hidden Buenos Aires of secret clubs and private parties, seamy side streets and bizarre characters. Daisy follows eagerly, in willing thrall to the gamesmanship of this dangerous girl.

They pick up men and lie about their names and nationalities, invent fictitious pasts. For Daisy, obliteration feels like liberation: “Suddenly, thanks to lying, I detached myself from my biography. Rather than ruminating over things, I forgot about my past.” They seduce and then they run, literally, through the darkened streets, the men chasing them down.

Soon enough, it’s Daisy chasing Leonarda, who refuses to be caught. Meanwhile, the counterpoint to Daisy’s slide into obsession appears to be Isolde, whose cool Austrian beauty has earned her entry into the Argentine elite. But where Daisy seeks out strangeness, Isolde is slowly undone by her outsider status.

We’re back to the opening sentence here, where one plant takes firm root in foreign soil and the other withers and dies. It’s not until the final images of Swann’s strange and unsettling novel that you see who has blossomed and who failed to thrive.