Abroad: Book One by Liz Jacobs
Published by: Brain Mill Press
Genre: New adult
Reviewed by: Edwin
What to Expect: Incredibly well-observed new adult tale of a young Russian-Jewish American in London on exchange. Don’t let the simple premise deceive you: this has an emotional depth that is rare to see, particularly in a first novel.
Plot: Nick Melnikov doesn’t know where he belongs. He was just a kid when his Russian-Jewish family immigrated to Michigan. Now he’s in London for university, overwhelmed by unexpected memories. Socially anxious, intensely private, and closeted, Nick doesn’t expect to fall in so quickly with a tight-knit group of students from his college, and it’s both exhilarating and scary. Hanging out with them is a roller coaster of serious awkward and incredible longing, especially when the most intimidating of the group, Dex, looks his way.
Dex Cartwell knows exactly who he is: a black queer guy who doesn’t give a toss what anybody thinks of him. He is absolutely, one-hundred-percent, totally in control of his life. Apart, maybe, from the stress of his family’s abrupt move to an affluent, largely white town. And worrying about his younger brother feeling increasingly isolated as a result. And the persistent broken heart he’s been nursing for a while . . .
When Nick and Dex meet, both find themselves intrigued. Countless late-night conversations only sharpen their attraction. But the last thing Nick wants is to face his deepest secret, and the last thing Dex needs is another heartache. Dex has had to fight too hard for his right to be where he is. Nick isn’t even sure where he’s from. So how can either of them tell where this is going?
Review: At its heart, Abroad is quite a simple slice of life story: a young Russian-American man goes on exchange to London for an entire university year, and life happens. But to focus on that simple premise is to miss the point: what Jacobs does with that simple premise is remarkable.
I’ll talk about the characters in a second, but what I want to mention first is the atmosphere. Abroad gets the emotional beats of being young and closeted so, so right, in a way I’ve seen very few other books do. Speaking from experience, there’s this odd feeling when you’re queer and in the closet when you first meet a group of friends who are gay and bi and genderqueer and out and proud. And those people are in turn friends with straight people who visibly embrace their friends’ sexualities and gender identities. Eventually, it’s incredibly freeing and affirming, but initially it is disorientating and anxiety-inducing. You feel like you have all these fabulous friends, out and proud and doing their thing, sometimes requiring tremendous bravery in the face of familial disapproval, and you’re still cowering in the closet. That initial feeling can make you feel worse: meeting those queer friends confronts you directly with your own closeted status, and it takes courage to push past that and, eventually, come out. At that point it’s amazing, and those friends will be with you for life.
For many people that, this pre-coming out experience happens in college. For others on their first big overseas trip. A change in context can help someone work out where they fit. For Nick in Abroad it’s both: an overseas trip in college. Nick knows he’s gay, but he already feels like he’s The Russian One, The Jewish One, and, and now, in London, The American One – he doesn’t know if he can cope with being The Gay One, too. How many ways of not fitting in can one person – who already suffers from social anxiety – cope with? The story of Abroad is the story of Nick wrestling with those fears, wrestling with the possibility that his new city and new friends have given him, and seeing where he ends up. This ambivalent mix of anxiety and excitement is a singular feeling for a young queer person, though not one I often see depicted in literature. I’m pleased to see it here.
The group of friends Nick makes in London is so real, as well. This is what friend groups (at least good ones) in college look like: A group of young people who at different times support and antagonise each other. The hot one that everyone wants to sleep with them. The too-friendly one who organises way too many social events. The surly but needy one. The boyfriend no one likes. The wide-eyed new friend just soaking in the history everyone has together (that would be Nick). Jacobs, though, is too good a writer to leave the archetypes, comforting though they are, uncomplicated. Alex, the hot one, is the most supportive, kindest one of the whole bunch. Natali, the surly one, has insecurities she hasn’t shared with anyone in the group. The annoying boyfriend, Lance, has been truly amazing with his partner, Jonny, who really needs it after a rough experience coming out to his family. And the overly friendly Izzy (the third point of view character after Dex and Nick) works out some things about herself that she’d never known before. In short, they’re all people. Flawed but amazing people I wish I could have been friends with, at college too.
I think Nick’s attempts to find out where he fits in the world and in his friend group constitutes the core of the novel, but there is a prominent romantic plot in Abroad as well. Dex and Nick are attracted to each other from the start, and because they’re in their early 20s, Dex is recently dumped, and Nick is socially awkward, this of course takes the form of them being complete dicks to each other (mostly Dex to Nick, though it’s not entirely one way). They eventually work out how to be in the same room together, and form a fast friendship that clearly becomes important to both of them to a greater extent than either expected. This eventually develops into having feelings for each other, although ones that Nick is not quite ready to reciprocate initially. By the end of the book – this is book 1 of a duology – we leave them in something of a “to be continued” happy for now, which will presumably be played out in book 2.
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book enormously. I’m friendly with Jacobs online, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book one way or another. I’d read her non-fiction previously, and was excited to see what such a talented wordsmith could do with fiction. The answer, it turns out, is a truly impressive first novel. Highly recommended.
What you might not like/doesn’t work for you: The book is a little long, and the plot moves a bit slowly in places. It also won’t work for those who have trouble relating to main characters who suffer from self-doubt.
What you will love: It gets everything right: college, the closet, coming out, the immigrant experience – a true and authentic depiction of each one. It’s also a moving story of friendship and belonging.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else? Connect with Edwin on Twitter.