Will I always hunger for the thing I don’t have?”
From this memorable quote to the well-paced unraveling of every false assumption, Crouch’s powerful, psycho-sexual drama based on the Amanda Knox story combines various degrees of lust and indifference, trust and betrayal, obsession and disdain, dominance and submission. Not just a one-way arrangement, Crouch leads her embattled heroine through a terrifying and heartbreaking role reversal.
Grifonia, a small town in Umbria, might be a good place for students to hang out, but it’s certainly no place for sissies. Posses of sexually aggressive Italian boys wander the streets, intimidating tourists and college girls while drug dealers risk imprisonment for the profit to be made on coke and other illegal substances. Into this exhilarating landscape comes twenty-one year-old Tabitha, ostensibly in Grifonia to study at the prestigious Enteria exchange but also to taste the delights of living abroad.
To Tabitha’s naïve eyes, Grifonia is both a curse and a paradise, a far cry from her insular campus apartment back in Nottingham. But what starts out quite simply, as “a girl packed a suitcase full of soap and clean underwear who goes to Italy and rents a charming cottage,” soon becomes something far darker and more sinister. With its great network of black tunnels below the street and its dim passageways, the past history of Grifonia proves to run deep, “even in a topographical sense.”
Tabitha’s early days are laced with terrible loneliness and longing for the comforts of home, for her best friend, Babs, and her loving mother. On her first day at the elite study program, Tabitha meets fellow student Jenny Cole. Perhaps to her detriment, Tabitha finds herself enamored with glamorous, beautiful Jenny. Perpetually in motion, Jenny glides across the main piazza flanked by her two best friends, Luka and Anna. This “un-resting threesome” are soon tossing back shots at the notorious Red Lion nightclub while getting Tabitha, their new best friend, to disclose mortifying secrets about her sexual history.
No longer such a timid girl in a strange city, Tabitha stumbles across a former cloister that once housed chamber after chamber of Etruscan arms and sarcophagi. Here, while looking at sacrificial scenes of young girls, Tabitha meets handsome, commanding Colin. In search of a new identity, she also experiences a "bad girl" interlude with sexy Marcello, an Italian who lives downstairs. If Marcello proves to be a panacea for Tabitha’s sickening loneliness, then so does rough and ready Claire, an American who like Tabitha has come to Italy to let her hair down. At first Claire’s sexual escapades grate on Tabitha even as her over-familiarity turns her into a selfless purveyor of other people's words and ideas.
In Abroad, sexual passion seems as ever-present as open communication. Never far beneath the surface, sex is eventually bought to the forefront in arc of drugs, murder and sexual self-destruction of both Claire and Tabitha in a tour-de-force of erotic tension and looming violence. Increasing amounts of booze and parties fail to quell Tabitha’s enthusiasm for hanging out with Jenny, Anna and Luke. She finds herself led by Jenny to all sorts of parties hidden throughout Grifonia. In gilded pockets behind walls of stone, amid the blurred faces, flickering candles and trays loaded with glasses of Umbrian wine, Tabitha finally acknowledges that her three friends come from a world totally different from her own. Deeply in love with each one of them, she doesn’t hesitate to be mesmerized by their whispered confidences.
In this tale of woe, Tabitha undergoes a complete transformation in dramatic circumstances where she discovers the truth (a horrible secret—more than one, in fact). Does Tabitha’s inevitable confrontation build to an unbearable pitch and a night (perhaps) of murder with Jenny inadvertently blamed for the crime? Is Colin an intuitive manipulator of his gregarious, earthy lover? While Colin may be willing to replace his new girlfriend in his affections and his bed, Claire clearly is not. For comfort, Tabitha clings to Jenny and her apparent contempt for Claire, then to Marcello, even though she knows Marcello doesn’t really love her. For much of the book, Claire is a friend and stalwart to Tabitha, periodically submerging herself entirely in a smutty bad girl's persona. In so doing, Claire becomes a near-perfect enabler for Tabitha’s risky, drunken behavior.
Tunneling us into a world of suspicions and false loyalties, Crouch exposes the tomb of darkness that seems to swallow Tabitha whole. It is Claire’s diary, though, that truly holds something sinister, something dark and sexual, telling of a girl killed out of obsession and revenge. Exposing the dark, gritty underbelly of Grifonia, Crouch unfolds an extraordinary novel layered with years of life, death and secrets in a town with an exotic untold history.