Take an administrative snafu, a bad breakup, and what shall heretofore be known as "The Hot-Tub Incident," and you’ve got two unprepared sophomores on a semester abroad. For American party girl Tasha, an escape to Oxford may be a chance to ditch her fame as a tabloid temptress, but wading Uggs-deep in feminist theory is not her idea of a break. Meanwhile, the British half of the exchange, studious Emily, nurses an aching heart amid the bikinis and beer pong of U.C. Santa Barbara. Soon desperation has the girls texting each other tips — on fitting in, finding love, and figuring out who they really are. With an anthropologist’s eye for detail and a true ear for teen-speak, exciting new novelist Abby McDonald has crafted a funny, fast-paced, poignant look at survival, sisterhood, and the surprising ways we discover our true selves.
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Abby McDonald is a recent graduate of Oxford University. This is her first novel. A former resident of the U.K., she currently lives in Montreal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This is so not a good idea.
I'm barely five minutes into my first class of the semester when it hits me just how bad an idea this is. Sure, it's not "getting into the hot tub with Tyler Trask while the cameras are rolling" bad, but then what is? I would have to search the world for the people who decided Crocs were a cute shoe concept before I found an idea as bad as that, but taking my semester abroad placement at Oxford University when I barely scrape a 3.0 GPA? Way up there on the dumb-ass rankings.
". . . By now, you'll all be familiar with the basic texts on the reading list . . ."
I glance down at the dense two-page list they included in my exchange information pack, full of titles like Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, and have to remind myself to breathe. I only arrived in England a couple of days ago, but apparently hell waits for no girl, even if she's suffering killer jet lag.
". . . And we've got a new face with us. Natasha Collins, welcome."
My head jerks up, and I look around to find the group staring at me. Instead of the packed, anonymous lecture halls I'm used to back home, I'm sitting in a dim, wood-paneled room, one of a group of just ten students balanced on battered couches and overstuffed armchairs.
"Would you like to introduce yourself?" Professor Susanne Elliot asks, her salt-and-pepper hair falling around a face that, back home, would have been Botoxed into oblivion.
"Umm, sure," I begin. "I'm Tash - Natasha," I correct myself. I keep forgetting, Tasha is no more: the version of myself I left giggling and drunk in that hot tub. "I'm here from UCSB for the semester."
"UCSB?" Elliot repeats, frowning. Yep - definitely no Botox.
"University of California?" I explain hesitantly. "I go to school in Santa Barbara."
"Oh." Elliot seems surprised. She shuffles her papers, searching for something. "We don't usually exchange with that university."
"It was a kind of last-minute thing." I begin to pick the clear varnish on my thumb nail and ignore the amused looks my classmates are exchanging. I don't know why they have to be so snobby about it. I mean, sure, it's not Stanford, but the UC system is totally second tier!
"Santa Barbara," the professor repeats. "And what were you studying there?" She looks over her thin wire-rimmed glasses at me.
"I'm . . . undeclared." My discomfort grows. Technically that's not quite true, but if I'd told the Global Exchange crew what my classes were, they'd have put me on some kind of international blacklist and branded me unfit for study.
"Well." She pauses. "Welcome to Oxford. I'm sure you'll find Theory of Politics very . . . interesting." She moves on to talk about research-paper schedules, but I catch the slight smirk all the same.
Sinking back in my seat, I sneak a look at my classmates. Dressed in an assortment of preppy sweaters, Oxford shirts, and neat jeans, they look totally at ease: nodding along and exchanging familiar smiles, but then again - they would. They've all spent the past year and a half bonding over dusty library books and term papers while I was five thousand miles away, blowing off classes to hang at the beach and shop. I may have a great tan and awesome bargain-hunting skills, but somehow I don't think those will count for much here.
". . . So I suppose that's all. Any questions?" Professor Elliot looks at us expectantly.
I had plenty. "What the hell am I doing here?" for a start and "Why didn't I just go volunteer in Guatemala like my mom suggested?" I'd been so focused on getting out of California, I hadn't really thought about what would come next.
"I have one." The sporty blond girl beside me raises her hand a little. "Will we be starting with power theory or basic ideological distinctions?"
"I thought I'd leave that up to you. Everyone?"
They all pitch in with enthusiastic suggestions while I smooth down my denim skirt (which is officially three inches shorter than anything my classmates probably own) and wish for the twenty-eighth time since my flight landed that I could take it all back. Not the "leaving the States" part, of course. That was a given. I mean, Christmas in L.A. was bad enough (with Mom and the stepdad alternating their silent treatment with plenty of "we're so disappointed in you" lectures), but when I got back to school, the gossip was worse than ever.
So what could I do? I didn't want to just drop out of college. I may have chosen keg parties over studying and put more thought into first-date outfits than any of my papers, but I'm no quitter. And more than that, I couldn't stand the symbolism - if I dropped out, it would look like it really had all been my fault. Ever since Tubgate, I'd been walking around with a smile on my face, pretending I was cool with what they were saying. The whispers. The tabloid lies. Dropping out altogether would be like admitting I felt dirty and ashamed, and there was no freaking way I would give them all that satisfaction.
So even though the semester had already started, I begged the exchange program, calling that stuck-up administrator every day until she finally broke down and told me that they'd had a mix-up with some girl at Oxford who still needed a spot. And although I didn't meet their oh-so-high Ivy League grade requirements, she could let me go if it was a straight swap: my classes for hers, my roommate for her dorm. School hadn't even started back over there, so I wouldn't miss a day. Nearly three whole months in England. Perfect.
But now I'm stuck in a room full of people who were probably high-school valedictorians instead of spirit-squad captains; I'm struggling to even follow the intro talk, let alone the classes themselves, and I have to ask myself . . .
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