Rachel lands her dream summer job at a luxurious Tuscan villa. She’s quickly drawn into a new group of rich and beautiful sophisticates and their world of partying, toxic relationships, and even more toxic substances. They’ve never faced consequences, are used to getting everything. But then someone goes too far. Someone dies. And nothing will ever be the same.
Lizzy Barber’s debut A Girl Named Anna won the Daily Mail First Novel Competition. In her newest and even more unputdownable work, she weaves a clever and deadly web of manipulation and desire. A summer thriller rife with back-stabbing, bed-hopping, and murder, Out of Her Depth is a perfect escapist read for fans of Euphoria, J.T. Ellison’s Her Dark Lies, or Rachel Hawkins’s Reckless Girls.
Lizzy Barber studied English at Cambridge University. Having previously dabbled in acting and film development, she has spent the last ten years as head of marketing for a restaurant group. Her first novel, A Girl Named Anna, won the Daily Mail and Random House First Novel Prize. She lives in London with her family.
What’s it about (in a nutshell):
Out of Her Depth by Lizzy Barber is a psychological thriller and, more importantly, a character study on how the allure of the entitled can take you on an unexpected journey into moral darkness. Whether or not you can return from this journey is one of the many poignant details the story explores.
Initial Expectations (before beginning the book):
The cover doesn’t give away anything. It’s a home with one upstairs window lighted, and I can’t tell if anyone is in that window. The blurb talked about a summer when a lot happened. The setting is a Villa in Florence, Italy – I love the sound of that. I also am intrigued by the mention of a deadly web of manipulation and desire. Overall, I expect an atmospheric thriller about wealthy people doing bad things.
Actual Reading Experience:
My actual reading experience was not what I imagined, yet it was.
I loved the atmosphere. If you are going to read an atmospheric thriller, what better atmosphere than Florence, Italy. I felt like I was there – staying in the villa, sunning by the pool, enjoying the sites and the parties. But the beauty did have a dark tinge to it – a tinge of entitlement, soullessness, and lies.
I also loved the ending. Until I reached about the 80% point, I thought my reading enjoyment was only around 3 stars, but then I read the conclusion. The last 20% reframed everything that came before it and made me want to reread the story, knowing what I now know. Because I realized that Out of Her Depth is a classic man’s inhumanity to man story and reflects Rachel’s potential descent into the moral darkness of the entitled young adults she spent her summer around. She is, as the title tells us, out of her depth. And I love this!
The first-person narration allows the reader to experience this world just as Rachel experiences it, with its allure and fantasy-like quality. This is her story, and it’s one fraught with warnings and a poignancy that I could never have expected going into it – aspects that provide suspense that keeps the pages turning. I didn’t find it as fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but that is one of the things I wonder about. If my focus had been on the right thing, I think the pace would have been much faster.
The story is told in dual timelines. One timeline tells of the events of that fateful summer, and the other is in the present (21 years later). The changes in time are handled smoothly and naturally without confusion about which timeline the reader is reading about.
The cast of characters are all incredibly unlikable – one more unlikable than the next – but then I believe that is an essential point of the story. The narrator and main character, Rachel, comes from a solidly middle-class family with a total lack of pretenses or airs. She finds herself thrown into a whole different world for the summer when a teacher recommends her for a job at an Italian Villa. She enters a world of entitlement and deception that could change her forever.
What It Reminds Me Of:
It reminded me of The It Girl by Ruth Ware, which I recently read, but more focused on the narrator’s psychology. The blurb also mentions J.T. Ellison’s Her Dark Lies and Rachel Hawkins’s Reckless Girls, which I can see.
To Read or Not to Read:
If you love atmospheric psychological thrillers involving toxic friendships, Out of Her Depth is one you won’t be able to put down.
Before you judge me, remember this: a girl died, but it wasn’t my fault.
I know that seems like a pathetic confessional. Even more pathetic because the confession itself has, until this point, never been uttered.
I’ve wanted to. Believe me, I’ve wanted to.
The words have formed themselves on the precipice of my tongue, palpitating with their ugly need to be heard, to make me part of the narrative. To declare to the A-level students when I see it coming up on their news feeds, languorously debating it, now, once more, as it has risen into public consciousness twenty-one years after the fact: I was there.
When they stumble in late to my lesson, less eager to talk of the trapassato prossimo than about who fucked whom at last night’s social, and whether crimped hair really is making a comeback.
I was there.
When they blink at me from faces still etched with yesterday’s makeup, reeking of the top-shelf vodka and menthol cigarettes that their house mistresses will studiously ignore.
I was there.
When they declare they “really struggled with this week’s essay” so they only have notes, and they say, “About that C on the mock exam… Did you know my parents funded the library?” and they don’t even bother to wait for the response as they pull out their laptops and glance at their watches, and they think to themselves, Boring bitch has never lived.
I was there.
I imagine each letter incubating in the saliva that pools in the side of my gums. I picture myself standing, drawing the blinds. An illicit eyebrow raise that will make them pause, look up at me anew, place their laptops on the floor as I edge toward them.
Screw Dante. Let me tell you a real story about Florence.
I am just leaving for dinner when I hear.
People talk of remembering exactly where they were when great events happened: Princess Di, the Twin Towers, Trump. I know this isn’t quite on the same scale, but I’ll remember exactly where I was, all the same.
I’ve had back-to-back lessons all day, but now, at last, I have an hour to myself, the only person left in the languages office. I spend it working on my paper “Pirandello and the Search for Truth” for the Modern Language Review, barely coming up for air. This is the part of academia I enjoy the most: the research, the pulling together of an idea, the rearranging of words and thoughts on the page until they start to take on a life of their own, form arguments, cohesion. I’m hoping that this will be the one they’ll finally agree to publish.
I am the only French and Italian teacher at Graybridge Hall,
have been for the last ten years. When they decided to introduce Italian for the younger years, as well as the older students, I did suggest that perhaps now it would be time to look at hiring someone else. But Ms. Graybridge, the eponymous head—and third of that name to have held the position—reminded me that the school’s ethos was “personal and continuous care for every girl.” Which didn’t really make sense as a rebuttal, but which I knew was shorthand for no, and which she knew—because of certain circumstances under which I assumed my position in the first place—I wouldn’t argue with.
Not that I don’t enjoy teaching. Sometimes. “shaping young minds” and all that seems like it should be a worthy cause. When I was younger, much younger, I imagined maybe I would do a PhD, become a professor. I also thought about diplomatic service, traveling the world as a translator, journalism, maybe, why not? Instead I sit through mock orals on topics as ground-breaking as Food and Eating Out, Cinema and TV, and My Family.
My rumbling stomach is the first signal I have that evening is approaching, and when I tear myself away from my laptop screen to look at the darkening sky, I decide to ditch my planned root around in the fridge, and be sociable instead. Wednesday is quiz night at the pub near school. A group of teachers go every week, the little thrill they get as their cerebral cortexes light up with a correct answer just about making up for a day spent asking the girls to kindly not look at their Apple Watches until break, and maybe not take their makeup out of their Marc Jacobs backpacks until class is over just this once.
I close down my laptop and do a brisk tidy of the room before slipping on my coat and scarf, and am just about to slide my phone into my rucksack when an alert catches my eye—specifically, a name, bouncing out of the BBC News push notification, one I have avoided all thought of for a long while, as much out of circumstance as necessity.
I freeze in the doorway—phone clutched in my hand as preciously as though it were the Rosetta stone—and look again, not quite believing I saw it right, presuming perhaps it was just wishful thinking, a long hour of screen-staring playing tricks on my eyes, that could have conjured his name before me.
But there it is. That name. Those five syllables. The six vowels and seven consonants that have held more significance for me than any word or sentence written in my entire attempted academic career.
And next to them, three words that throw my whole world off kilter, that see me reaching for the door handle and wrenching it shut, all thoughts of dinner gone from my mind:
Sebastian Hale Appeal Proceeds Tonight.
I sit at my desk, lights off, face illuminated by the white glow of my phone screen, and read someone else’s report of the story I know so well. The story I have lived. I place the phone facedown on the desk, snuffing out its light, and press my palms into the woodwork. The feel of my flesh rubbing against the desk’s smooth surface grounds me, helps me process the report—think.
I knew there had been requests for appeals over the years, all denied by the Corte d’Assise d’Appello. A change of lawyer, probably hoping that new eyes on the case could find something that was missed. But they’ve all come to nothing. How did I miss this?
If he is retried, if there is any possibility that he might be released…everything would change.
After the initial trial, after my part was done and I could finally go home and resume the life I had worked so hard to live. I tried—I really, truly tried—to put it behind me.
That was what she did, after all, and I wanted to follow her lead. I have always wanted to follow her lead. But that time has never truly left me. Sometimes, it will take the smallest thing—the light filtering through a window just so, a particular kind of humid heat, walking past a patisserie and being hit with a waft of baked vanilla sweetness—and it all comes back to me with cut-glass clarity. The sound of our laughter ricocheting off ocher-colored walls. The clink of glasses and the taste of hot weather, raw red wine. The touch of sweat-dewed skin. The scent of pine. The giddy, delightful feeling of being young and happy and having the rest of our lives spooling out in front of us.
These are the good things—the things I want to remember.
The bad things…those I have no choice but to remember.
And now, at the sight of his name alone, I am instantly transported: flying on the wings of a deep déjà vu, away from the cold late-autumn day and the dusty corners of my tired office and back, back, back to that time—that summer.
To those gold-tinged days and months that crescendoed so spectacularly into those final, onyx hours.
To the start.