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Shake it up – ‘Things That Happened Before the Earthquake’

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Debut novel a well-crafted, compelling coming of age story

I’ve always been a sucker for a coming of age story. There are unending compelling ways to tell a tale of growing up; the struggles of adolescence are both universal and unique.

Chiara Barzini’s debut novel is “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake” (Doubleday, $26.95). It’s the story of a young Italian girl brought by her filmmaker parents to Los Angeles circa 1992; she’s largely left to her own devices when it comes to navigating this new life, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t come easy.

Through this lens, Barzini paints a portrait not only of one girl’s grappling with the establishment of her identity, but of the city of Los Angeles; we see L.A. as defined by the people who dream within its borders.

Eugenia is a fairly typical Italian teenager living in Rome. Her life is upended when her filmmaker parents decide – largely on the strength of a successful canned meat commercial – to make the move to America. Specifically, the San Fernando Valley.

They land in a city still reeling from the riots of just a few weeks before. While Eugenia’s parents immediately start striving to make the movie that they believe will make them their fortune, she is left to muddle through. Her limited English immediately marks her as different; she’s an outcast from day one.

She does find people with whom to connect – some briefly, others deeply. A Persian gangster wannabe. A young slacker working in his obese mother’s memorabilia store. A free-spirited classmate who lives in Topanga Canyon with her twin brother and musician father. These brief flashes of connectivity serve as her anchor, something to hold onto as her family is swallowed up by the roller-coaster process of creating their film.

But the pendulums of these relationships tend to swing; the shifting nature of interpersonal dynamics – particularly those of young people – threatens to overwhelm Eugenia even as she strives to find definition and validation through those around her.

And when the figurative seismic shifts in her life give way to literal ones, she’s left to decide just what these relationships – with her family, with her friends, with those who might be something more – mean to her … and what she’s willing to do to hold onto them.

“Things That Happened Before the Earthquake” is a stunning piece of work, an exquisitely detailed look at one girl’s efforts to embrace, adapt to and engage with an altogether new culture. Her successes and failures in doing so make for a story that is alternatingly sweet and sharp as she searches for her place in this strange new realm.

The fact that this is Barzini’s debut novel is astonishing; there’s an easy craftsmanship on display that belies the notion that this is anyone’s first book. It’s not just the strength of characterization, although everyone from Eugenia on down is richly, vividly realized. It’s not just the beauty of the narrative, although the story being told is almost tactile in its sensual structure. It’s not the perfectly captured spirit of time and place, although you’ll be hard-pressed not to be mesmerized by the spirited recreation of early-1990s L.A. And it’s not just the power of the prose, although Barzini’s sentences are powerfully nuanced, blending the sweeping with the subtle.

It’s all those things. And more. It’s exceptional.

One of the joys of being a book reviewer is when you read something that you might not have chosen on your own, only to have it turn out to be an outstanding experience. That’s what “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake” was for me, an unanticipated delight packed with powerful storytelling, engaging character and some top-shelf writing.

Chiara Barzini. Remember that name. There’s a good chance we’re all going to be hearing it a lot more in the years to come. And if you have any sort of affinity for a tale well-told, you need to check out “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake.”

Last modified on Thursday, 24 August 2017 11:20


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