The 2007 murder of English student Meredith Kercher, who was killed while studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, was the kind of case that dominates international headlines. There were allegations of drug use and sick sex games, and an alleged killer who was young, beautiful, and American, not to mention adamant about her innocence.
There's no denying that that kind of tragedy is also luridly, horribly rich ground for a novel. With Abroad, author Katie Crouch has drawn her premise and the broad strokes of the book's plot from the Kercher case, creating a dark, deeply psychological page-turner that explores the more dangerous aspects of feminine coming of age.
The narrator and central character is Tabitha or "Taz," an Irish student embarking on a year abroad in the fictional Etruscan city of Grifonia, Italy. She's shy, vulnerable, and like pretty much every college student who ever goes abroad, looking to reinvent herself. She discovers an adorable cottage to live in, complete with an exuberant American roommate and cute Italian neighbors. She even falls in with the resident mean girls, who are — or at least appear to be — rich and teeming with questionable high society connections.
In many ways, Taz's story is the one that every girl wishes for when she travels to Europe: make new, exciting friends, party like crazy, find a hot native boyfriend. But what makes Abroad more than just a cheap wish-fulfilment-novel-slash-crime-thriller is that through Taz, Crouch paints a subtle picture of a young girl's desperate desire to be wanted and the consequences of following that desire where it leads her.
And it's not just being wanted in the sexual sense, although that certainly plays a part. It's being wanted in every way possible — romantically, platonically, you could even say even cosmically. These are naive young women we're talking about, after all. Taz and her friends are endlessly reaching out to each other and the world at large for acceptance, even as they do their best to seem aloof and independent. In doing so, they weave together relationships that are positively pulsing with tension, threatening to snap and tear the whole thing apart at any moment.
Crouch has nailed almost all her characters, especially Taz. Since she's telling her story in retrospect we get plenty of self-reflective moments, like when she says, "Young women of the sort I was are most content when they feel secure." When she begins hanging out with her new friends, who call themselves the B4, she confesses her girlish adoration for them, despite their many flaws: "The truth was, I was deeply in love with each one of them, and when they took me aside to whisper their mesmerizing confidences ... I drank their words in greedily, savoring each syllable, each sweet breath of that new life."
The one character who doesn't feel as completely realized is Claire, Taz's wild American roommate. Claire is independent, overly intimate, and generous with both her emotions and her body. At times she also seems a bit forced — although that could very well be intentional on Crouch's part.
Because Crouch has hit the sweet spot with the novel's pacing, Abroad is very difficult to put down. Danger floats among the words from page one, when Taz describes her suitcase and says "The case was eventually returned to my father by the authorities." The sense of menace is amped up with the page-long historical descriptions of Grifonian woman murdered in so-called mercy killings that are interspersed throughout Taz's story. And of course, since most readers are surely familiar with the murder case that Abroad is inspired by, there's a sense of inevitability before you even open the book. We know someone will die, but who, and how, and — the most burning question of all — why? The "who" is answered fairly quickly, but that only makes the other two questions even more urgent. To Crouch's credit, Abroad remains the kind of book that is a pleasure to soak in and sink your teeth into — no matter how fast you read it.