On the dark side of studying abroad

For years, Europe has been the place where American girls go to become sophisticated, worldly women, whether that’s Isabel Archer first arriving on the English country estate in The Portrait of a Lady or Scarlett Johansson exploring her sexuality in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But in the past few years, novels about American girls going abroad took a distinctly dark turn. Call it the Amanda Knox effect—when the American college student was accused of murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy, the U.S. press covered the story like a real-life soap opera. Knox’s story touches on some perfect issues for dramatic fiction—jealousy, passion, adventure—and the beautiful scenery is the perfect backdrop.

One of those books is Andrea Dunlop’s Losing the Light, which comes out today. In the novel, Brooke, a successful 30-something New Yorker runs into the French guy she dated when she was studying abroad in France during college. Seeing him again kicks off a series of flashbacks, and we slowly learn that Brooke’s roommate, Sophie, didn’t have as good an experience in Nantes–and she never made it home alive.

While Losing the Light shares a few strands of DNA with the Knox/Kercher story, two other recent novels owe much more significant debts: Katie Crouch’s Abroad is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Perugia, where the women lived, while Jennifer DuBois’s Cartwheel focuses on Knox stand-in Lily, whose family comes to Buenos Aires (neatly chosen, as Argentina has a strong Italian influence) after she is arrested.

So what is it about young women traveling the world alone that makes such a perfect setup for drama? Dunlop has a theory. “I think part of the reason that everyone got so obsessed with Amanda Knox was because the idea of young women going abroad to explore their sexual identities feels threatening to the more conservative parts of the country,” she says. “The idea that men of a certain class would go abroad and have sexual adventures has long been part of American culture, but the idea of a young, white, wholesome-looking, conventionally attractive college girl going abroad and being deviant made for an awful lot of pearl clutching, completely aside from the actual murder accusation.”

Each book has romantic, sensual scenes that set up a contrast to the inevitable violence. In Losing the Light, Sophie and Brooke are whisked off to the Riviera by Alex, the moody artiste they both have feelings for. In Cartwheel, Lily’s good-looking French/Argentine boyfriend is named Sebastien LeCompte, which is such an absurd cliche of a name that other characters comment on it. (If pop culture has taught us anything, it’s that dreamy French boyfriends are bad news. Remember what happened to Zoey Bartlet?) And Taz, the working-class Irish heroine of Abroad, befriends a group of rich girls who gain entry to Italian villas full of Renaissance artwork. These may be books about studying abroad, but going to wine bars and having affairs are more fun to read about than writing term papers. Instead of college bars packed with other Americans, the girls are placed in settings where they’re the odd one out, sometimes not understanding the language being spoken around there. The line between sensual and spooky isn’t that hard to blur.

History, per the old chestnut, is written by the survivors. So are books. In real life, Kercher’s family told Reuters that they were upset how their daughter’s murder had been overshadowed by the lurid details of Knox’s trial. And, sadly, that happens again in fiction: the girls who live—and in the case of Cartwheel, parents, police, and lawyers—are the ones left to tell what happened. Luckily, in the case of these three brilliant novelists, the stories are compelling to read and resist the easy categorization of bad girl and good girl. No matter what you think about Knox’s guilt or innocence, these three books will definitely captivate your attention. Warning: don’t start reading any of them if you have a deadline coming up.

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