When Eugenia Petri decamps from Rome to Los Angeles with her filmmaking family in the early ’90s, she finds the city that basically invented the modern teenager to be deeply depressing. Nevertheless, a year into her Southern California stay, Eugenia says the word “like” in a sentence. Twice. Her friend dutifully notes that she’s become “an Italian Valley girl. You’ve invented a new L.A. subculture.”
Chiara Barzini has similarly invented a fresh, energizing twist on the fish-out-of-water coming-of-age story in her hilarious, gorgeously poignant novel Things That Happened Before the Earthquake (Doubleday). The Italian author throws out all the clichés about what a teen girl is supposed to be and want, and instead gives us a breathing, pulsating character fighting half the time not to feel and the other half hungry to feel anything at all. Eugenia survives drug trips, road trips, love, and even the title’s natural disaster, and she does it in the surreal world called America, where, the protagonist notes, everything, “even the moon,” is bigger.