The old Etruscan city of Grifonia swarms with year-abroad students―thousands of them from all over. Ostensibly, they've come to study. But really they are here to reinvent themselves, to shuck their identities and buck constraints far from the watchful eyes of parents and others who know them too well. There's a reason Henry James's young ladies went to Europe with chaperones. Today's young ladies don't.
In Abroad, the bestselling novelist Katie Crouch tears a story from international headlines and transforms it into a page-turning parable of modern girlhood, full of longing and reckless behavior. As the heroine (and the reader) of Abroad will soon discover, Grifonia is a city filled with dangerous secrets of many kinds: ancient, eternal, infernal.
Tabitha, aka "Taz" Deacon is a 21 year old Irish-Israel forensics student who comes to Grifonia, Italy through a study abroad program. She unexpectedly meets up with an old classmate, Jenny, from back home who seems to have worked herself into all the most influential social circles in Grifonia. Jenny invites Taz into her inner circle, which includes two other girls -- Anna and Luka -- the four of them collectively going by the name The Brit Four, or B4 for short. Taz, the only one of the bunch who has a decent grasp on conversational Italian, serves as the group's translator. An invaluable skill, Taz soon sees, as the other girls repeatedly get themselves in sticky situations Taz has to smooth over.
Taz's life in Grifonia starts out innocent enough, but as time passes she becomes more and more entrenched in shady, sometimes even illegal scenarios -- sometimes willingly, sometimes not. To complicate matters more, Taz goes against her roommates' warnings about getting involved with the guys who live in the apartment downstairs. She starts up a summer fling with one of the local Italian boys living in that apartment, but quickly has her first taste of innocence slipping away. The relationship gets a little unhealthy and messy, when Taz and her guy have an experimental night with another couple. Whenever she takes a minute to step back and take stock of her life at any particular moment, she's taken aback at how out of hand she's let things get, between the sordid side business B4 gets her involved with or her guy's urging for her to dabble in drugs and free love. And she thought she was just coming for the culture and history!
Periodically scattered in between the modern-day story of Taz, there are little 1-2 page interludes that reference historical periods, both AD and BC, that involve the unexpected deaths of young women, either through ritual killings or as victims of war or crime. The stories all seem to have a link to a society called the Compagnia, who throughout the centuries have been secretly called in by others to perform "good deaths", aka mercy killings. When it seems like death is unavoidable for a loved one, you call the Compagnia to carry out the sentence before the enemy does it for you. As the reader, it's not clear early on how these tie in to Taz's story, but I promise there is a connection.
It's a dangerous thing, to be wanted.
I was already a fan of Katie Crouch's writing, after reading her Southern Fiction novels Girls In Trucks and Men & Dogs (she also has a YA duology out that I have not read yet). This novel felt like a complete 180 from her previous works, and I loved it! I'll give you a heads up though, this one is a sloooow burner mystery. It's got edge and creep factor but you definitely have to be patient with this one and let it work its magic on simmer. One thing I really loved is the subtlety to the writing here. It's just a word or phrase dropped here and there that serve as blink-and-you-miss-it clues to what's ahead. Crouch's foreshadowing is SO quiet but has just enough presence to make your skin crawl with anticipation. In the earliest chapters, the wording the narrator uses hints that the story is being told in retrospect after something either tragic or criminal has happened, but it's Chapter 12 that really took me by surprise. Just two words in that chapter smack you in the face (again, quietly) and change the whole perspective of the rest of the novel!
I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending. It was satisfying in that there were no blatant loose ends...though there were some questions it left in my mind. And while it was intense, something makes me feel like it could have gone even farther. It was juuuust short of "seriously, what just happened?!?" for me. Also, the wrapup for the characters, everyone was given a closing story but after what went down it was a little odd to see such calm scene closers for all involved. How did everyone not end up way more messed up?! Don't get me wrong though, I still really loved the story!
According to Crouch, this story -- as far as specifics in plot points, characters, all that -- was entirely from her own imagination. BUT she also says it was loosely inspired (maybe just inspired the initial story concept) by an actual crime she heard about that happened in Italy in 2007, where a student on a study abroad program was murdered.
Note To Readers: This novel does contain a spoiler for the novel Daisy Miller by Henry James.