17 Best Books to Read This Month
Conniving cabals, obsessive lovers, intrepid teens.
Los Angeles has had many ghostwriters, from Jack Kerouac to Joan Didion to Nathanael West. The list gets even better with the addition of Chiara Barzini, whose debut novel, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, is set in the early ’90s, between the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict and the Northridge seism. Its teenage narrator, Eugenia—louche, lonely—has been dragged from her native Rome to the Valley by anarchist parents trying to make it in the movie business.
As Eugenia walks the city, slipping out through her bedroom window while the adults sleep, she chronicles her adventures in a cool, psychedelic style that closely mirrors her efforts to experiment and fit in, whether through clothes, drugs, or sex. In Deva, a pot dealer’s twin sister who lives in Topanga Canyon, Eugenia seems to find what she’s really after—a particular kind of West Coast transcendence: "Ribbons of smoke circled in and out of her auburn locks as the sun hit her face. Her freckles sparkled, part of the canyon’s landscape." It’s hard to tell whether Eugenia has fallen for her friend or for California itself, which she’s come to see as "a force, a magnet...where I could get in touch with something primal."
Barzini’s love of place and nature is a perfect match for her groovy, poetic prose. ("Night was not night, but a darker, permanent day.") Again and again she evokes L.A.’s ineffable beauty, even when considering its least appealing characteristics: "I opened my eyes to the smoggy capsule that towered above downtown Los Angeles. The sunlight diluted into a thick polluted haze and I knew home was somewhere behind those freeways."
In 1979, Joan Didion wrote, "A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively." In this sense, the Golden State belongs to Barzini’s Eugenia, who looks to its "luminous unseen" and decides to "just let it shine."