Posted by Padmore Editorial



In Chiara Barzini's novel, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, cultures clash when an Italian teenager moves to the suburbs of Los Angeles in the weeks following the 1992 riots. 


"It felt like the city was still burning when we stepped off the airplane. Was it the riots, or was I just not yet used to the incendiary quality of the warm Santa Ana, the “devil winds” that blew in from the desert. The sunset behind the freeway? As we drove toward our house, we saw police choppers in the sky, metallic dragonflies emitting shafts of white beams moving probingly over the concrete below. Our cat, Mao, who had traveled from Rome with us, miaowed inconsolably. Nothing felt welcoming, and my father knew it."  




Chiara Barzini’s Things That Happened Before the Earthquake was a novel built on a plausible premise, an exploration of assimilation into American culture through the eyes of an Italian teenager coming of age. I neither loved nor hated this novel, but I could see where the author was trying to go, and there did exist moments where I appreciated the bravery of her writing.

Eugenia’s parents come to America with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big as filmmakers in L.A. They’re free-spirited in a truly European way, being shocked at the citations they receive for sunbathing topless on the beach and bewildered by things like private healthcare. They buy a Cadillac to fit in and change their wardrobe upon arrival in the U.S., not wanting to be typecast as Italian gringos, wanting to fit in and instantly conform into their new surroundings.


No topless sunbathing here please!


Eugenia is a typical teenager in a lot of ways. Aside from the fact that she has to worry about whether or not she’ll be threatened with deportation in American customs at the airport—and the fact that L.A. natives keep confusing her Italian heritage with French, which acutely annoys her—she searches for her own identity in much the same way as many teenaged girls raised in the dazzling lights of a big city. She’s needy, clingy to people who often have little interest in her, exploring her surroundings and individuality through her newfound sexuality, the occasional recreational drug and a pretty consistent series of adventures brought on by risky, naïve behavior.


Photo: Author Chiara Barzini as a teenager, left, on the beach in California with a friend


She’s hungry for positive attention, desperate to find herself and fit in, from the “pump up” sneakers she thought would be cool to wear to her first day of school (the other girls, she finds, have already graduated to wearing heels) to the slew of sexual trysts and arguably degrading positions she finds herself in. There are times when I questioned whether Eugenia was fearless or stupid, brave or simply naïve—but that is what coming-of-age is, isn’t it? A combination of all these things in its own right.

Several of the scenes came off as memories of my own high-school experiences, of the other students around me all struggling to fit in and claim our places in the hierarchy that exists in every American school. Still, there were times where some of the scenes came off as uncomfortable and strange to me—but those were the moments when Barzini’s own fearlessness as a writer was on full display.


Photo: Nacio Jan Brown 


A key note to consider about this novel is that Things That Happened Before the Earthquake is exactly what this book felt like: things that happened.

The plot was pretty loose, and, for the most part, simply read like a series of events—misadventures if you will—that happened to a teenaged girl after moving from her native Rome to the scorching L.A. just after the riots brought on by the beating of Rodney King in ’92. With that in mind, the setting was rich, the landscape described down to the detail so that you could feel the grit in the Valley air, smell the salt of the sea on the shores of Italy.


L.A. just after the riots brought on by the beating of Rodney King in ’92.


This novel was punctuated by pop culture events, like milestones that moved the story along on a timeline. The earthquake of 94’, the election of Silvo Berlusconi, O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco, gun to his head. It’s all seen through the eyes of Eugenia, commented on by a voice still trying to find itself. And that did have its own appeal, for sure. 



Things That Happened had a sort of hippie-ish soul to it, exploring the crevices of Italian culture and how they made assimilation into American society both difficult and noteworthy at the same time. Barzini was at times bold in her depictions of what unaffected thinking sounds like, what authentic living looks like, from “making out” with your grandmother, to rave parties in the middle of the desert to an inside glimpse of commune life.

Here you’ll find a slow read driven by finding oneself in the midst of chaos, rather than being heavily driven by plotting, irony, or plot twists. It was a book that read at a lulling pace but that still had its share of shocking, difficult and awkward moments that pierced through the lull. The characters were flawed in a way that seemed real, authentic, unaffected and devoid of pretenses, and for that readers can be grateful, because that can be hard to find. Fiction is littered with unthought-out stereotypes masquerading as engaging characters, but you won’t find a graveyard of those typecast bones here. That will appeal to a lot of readers.




Navidad Thelamour has a B.A. in English, Creative Writing from Georgia State University and a M.A. in Publishing from Kingston University, London. 

She’s worked for Hachette Livre, Little, Brown and Random House. She’s also worked with great non-fiction only houses like Zed Books, edited dozens of full-length manuscripts of all genres for both About Words Agency and Holloway Literary Agency, and worked with author J.J. Hensley as editor and agent on his renowned debut novel, Resolve!

She is the writer of a short story collection in the vein of Southern Gothic and is currently completing a full-length book which also explores the modern-day color line in America.  

Armed with a love for books and a professional history doused in all things literary, she’s here to be your guide into a foray of literary treats at your fingertips!




Things That Happened Before The Earthquake



Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing




Follow us on Instagram



added to cart success.

added to wishlist success.

Back to the top