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Fifteen year old Eugenia is rudely yanked from her dreamy Roman existence by her filmmaker parents, who dream of fame and fortune, and transplanted to the strange, suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. It’s 1992, mere weeks after the Rodney King riots, and she has only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as she struggles to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the LA high school experience—a world of gang rivalries and all-night-raves, fast food and sneakers. But the angst, ecstasy, and self-discovery of adolescence endure, no matter the backdrop. Frank, edgy, honest and raw, this irresistible debut is the love child of Jill Eisenstadt, Eve Babitz, Antonioni and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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I was looking at my grandmother, sitting cross-legged and topless on El Matador Beach in Malibu, and remembered that we used to make out. She would stick her tongue out and I had to lick it. She called it the “tongue-to-tongue game.” A soggy dumpling asking to be joined by mine. I couldn’t say no. The smell of her saliva repelled me. I didn’t like this activity, but I was told I should do it because she was old and I was a little girl. We played the game until I was eight. That day on the beach the vision of her pendulous naked breasts seemed as out of context as her tongue in my mouth did when I was little. I wondered what it was about my family. Why we could never make it right.
I sat on a rock in front of the waves—tall, ferocious waves. Even though it was summer, it was freezing. The beach was empty. I hated my parents for bringing me there. They were both sprawled on the sand, leaning their heads against a pole that held a Shark Alert sign. Their bathing suits were in a heap on top of a Positano-style sarong. They lounged nude as if they were in a beach town off the Mediterranean Sea. The wind thrust sand and towels in my face. It was so strong, I couldn’t even hear my brother’s voice close to me, but our parents were content, like that was just exactly what they had in mind when they moved to California. It wasn’t what I had in mind.
My mother took four soggy cream-cheese sandwiches out of her bag and a gallon of warm water she’d bought at the gas station a few days earlier and left in the car. The water tasted like plastic.
She invited my brother and me over and kept smiling even though we were visibly angry. This made us angrier.
We’d rather sit here and hate you, was what we thought.
They moved into the shade, nibbling on their soggy sandwiches, chunks of cream cheese getting stuck in their pubic hair. Grandma graced us by putting her shirt back on for the duration of the picnic. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be where the young people were, at the skate park we had passed on the highway coming in. If I was to live in that labyrinth of a city, that vast region, I should have the right to be with people my own age. But no, we were supposed to have lunch together, like a real Italian family.
It was August of 1992. Three months before standing on that windy beach, our father had announced we would be moving to Hollywood to become rich and famous. What he didn’t tell us was that we’d be moving to the vast and scorching basin that sprawled seamlessly for miles north of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley.
“Don’t you want to go where it’s always summer?” he asked my brother and me during a shoot for a commercial for canned meat in Rome.
Our entire family had been cast to be the national face of Italian Spam. This was encouraging, according to our father. A rich destiny awaited on the other side of the ocean. None of us had ever acted except as extras in our father’s films, but the commercial’s producers insisted.
“You are perfect for our product! You look like you’re related!” they screamed during our audition.
We were promised extra money for this reason.
“It’ll be practice for Hollywood,” our father said when we got the parts.
In the commercial we had to act like a traditional Italian family: a sporty fifteen-year-old daughter, a kooky younger brother, and two unconditionally loving parents. We had lunch together on a terrace overlooking Saint Peter’s Basilica—no waves, no sharks. The stylist put Band-Aids on my nipples because they got hard in the breeze. Girls were not supposed to have erect nipples. Our mother, Serena, dressed like a southern Italian housewife, a casalinga from the fifties, prepared a big salad topped with cadaverous red meat that had been duly molded, painted, and sprayed by the “food stylist” to deliver what the director called “a glorious, meaty glow.”
It smelled like dog food.
“Who’s hungry for thinly sliced vegetables on a bed of chopped meat?” she asked on camera.
“Me! Me! Me!” my brother and I cried, raising our arms to the sky.
“Time for a healthy lunch!” our father exclaimed, skipping over to the lavishly decked-out table after putting away the pot of azaleas he had just finished trimming.
We chewed the meat and spat it in a bin by our chairs after each take. I liked acting as a perfect family. I liked seeing my father play a patriarchal role, watering plants on the aristocratic Roman terrace the production company had rented for the shoot. In real life he rejected authorities and institutions. He wore pink and aquamarine shirts, called himself an anarchist, and practiced yoga and Transcendental Meditation. Now he was forced to wear ordinary dad clothes and say ordinary dad things. In my mind that really was our practice for Hollywood. We needed to learn how to become a normal family.
When I told my Roman schoolmates we were moving to America they all gasped. I should refuse to move to an imperialist country. America was evil. That was the bottom line. Ours was a politically active institution. Every year students conducted a sit-in on the school grounds to protest government decisions about public education. The real activists printed pamphlets and screamed communist slogans into megaphones. The rest of us liked the excuse of sleeping away from home. We camped in sleeping bags inside the freezing gym, smoked hash, and talked about “the system.” Nobody washed for days. Halls were littered with cigarette butts, posters, and empty cartons of pizza—our only sustenance. Most of the boys had anxious Italian mothers who snuck home-cooked meals through the gates. They didn’t want to look like mama’s boys so they ate their food alone in the restrooms.
One night Alessandro, the school’s most popular political leader, woke us up in the gym and ordered everyone to follow him to the principal’s office.
“Get the girl who’s moving to LA!” he screamed.
He identified as Rastafarian even though he was white and came from Trastevere. He had not rinsed his dreadlocks in so long that one of them had hardened to the point of breaking off. It was said that he’d found so many lice eggs inside that it looked like a cannoli pastry.
The old black-and-white television in the back of the principal’s office showed images of a city under siege. It was Los Angeles. Alessandro looked at me and nodded his head. “This is where you’re off to.”
News had arrived that the four police officers who were on trial for brutally beating the African American construction worker Rodney King had been acquitted. We had all seen images of the assault on television. It took place on a dark Los Angeles street and was videotaped by chance by a red-haired Argentinian who witnessed it from the balcony of his apartment. It was the first time that police brutality had been caught on tape and the video had gone viral even without the benefit of the Internet. The world expected justice. But justice didn’t come, so half an hour after the acquittal, more than three hundred people started protesting in front of police headquarters. By that evening the protesters outnumbered the police officers. Riots, burning, and looting began.
Sitting around the black-and-white TV in Rome, we felt like we were watching footage from a war.
When I went home the following day I screamed at my parents that we could not move to a country where the police were allowed to beat people with impunity. Serena and Ettore had been politically active radicals in their youth. My father had been part of Autonomia Operaia, the autonomist leftist movement, in the seventies. If I had any sense of political justice ingrained in me, it was because of the stories he told us about workers’ autonomy growing up. I thought I could count on their leftist ethos to change their minds. I was wrong.
The riots went on for six consecutive days. I looked at the flaming streets from our television in Rome and tried to imagine our new home somewhere among those fires. While Los Angeles was facing the largest insurrection in the United States since the sixties, my family was packing boxes for our move. Our grandmother Celeste would come along to help us settle in California. She walked around the house shaking her head at everything we were leaving behind.
“Poveri ragazzi,” she kept saying about my brother and me. “Poor kids.”
Serena turned off the TV and handed me a copy of American Vogue. There was a photo of happy girls on a beach wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and bikinis.
“This could be you. Try to look at the bright side.”
The Los Angeles airport was just a few miles from the epicenter of the riots. It was dusk when our airplane drew closer to the landing strip. I could see, amid the streets lined with identical one-story houses, a lack of something. An absence. Fifty-one men and seven women died in the riots—shot, burned, beaten to death, stabbed. That same airport where we were landing had been shut down by violence and then for cleanup. There had been fires, hundreds of buildings and homes burned down. Large parts of the city, famed for its lights, were still obscured. The power cut during the rioting left the south corner of the city in a dark hole. But the gloom I saw from the plane the day we arrived was not caused by lack of power. Order had been restored, but stores and businesses had shut down never to be rebuilt, leaving a sense of permanent dimness, like the bulb of a flashlight whose batteries were beginning to die.
It felt like the city was still burning when we stepped off the airplane. Or maybe I was yet to get used to the incendiary quality of the warm Santa Ana, the “devil winds” that blew in from the desert. The sun set 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.
It took us a long time to get to the house. My grandmother clutched her purse through the whole cab ride.
“It’s not like you’re going to get mugged in a taxi!” my mother reproached her, but she would not let go.
“Señora is right. We’re in Van Nuys, barrio Nuys as the local gangs say,” the cabdriver said with a smirk. “Better safe than sorry.”
“Visto, Serena?” my grandmother sniffed. “Marida was right. Whenever you told her you wanted to move out here, she always said it was the worst place to raise a family.”
Marida was my father’s mother who had died earlier that year at the age of ninety. She had grown up drinking champagne and twirling pearls in her fingers, but a few years before her death, she’d been conned by a Vatican priest who took advantage of her Alzheimer’s and asked her daily to withdraw large sums of money from her bank account to give to the church. She was convinced she could pay her way into heaven. By the time she died, there was very little left of the great inheritance my family was counting on. This, according to my father, was the reason why instead of living in Beverly Hills, like all decent filmmaking families, we had to live in barrio Nuys.
We had smuggled her ashes with us. They’d been divided among her four sons and even though my father was angry at her for leaving him with no patrimony, he was also superstitious and felt that something bad might happen if he left his share of his dead mother in Rome. On the flight over she had come to him in a dream, explicitly telling him to go back to Rome and forget about Los Angeles and filmmaking altogether. In her lifetime she had refused to see most of my father’s films. He invited her to premieres and even asked her to be his date the one time he had been accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, with a Pasolini-inspired story about a homosexual couple, but she bluntly declined. “I don’t like stories about pederasts.”
Reading Group Guide
1. Throughout the novel, Eugenia refers to her “rubber suit” protecting her during interactions with others. How did you interpret what she meant by this?
2. There are plenty of cultural details of the 1990s in the novel, from the clothes referenced to the O.J. Simpson trial. What cultural details do you remember from your own adolescence?
3. Eugenia experiences culture shock when she moves to Los Angeles and attends an American high school. What do you think an outsider might find shocking about your hometown? Your high school?
4. What do you think of the parents in the novel (Deva’s father, Henry’s mother, Eugenia’s parents)? What kinds of things might you have written about your own family when you were a teenager?
5. Were you surprised by the political and social differences between Italians and Americans as they are depicted in the novel?
6. The book feels different when Eugenia and Timoteo went to visit their uncle Antonio and his girlfriend Alma in Sicily. How does it contrast with the rest of the novel? What did this contrast add to your reading experience?
7. How was Things That Happened Before the Earthquake different from other coming-of-age novels you’ve read? How was it similar?
8. How did the setting, 1990s LA, impact your reading of the book? What did it add to the overall tone and/or plot of the novel?
9. Discuss the role of the 1994 earthquake in the novel. What was its significance? What actions did it put into motion?
10. What are your thoughts on the ending? Were you surprised by it?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Things That Happened Before The Earthquake is the story of a young Italian girl coming into her own in America! Eugenia is a typical Italian girl who was forced to move to Los Angeles just weeks after the 1992 riots. As she tries to fit in school and just living in America, her hippie parents come up with a scheme to make a movie which Eugenia is not very fond of. After spending a life changing summer in Italy with relatives, Eugenia is wanting more than ever to find her place in a big town until a earthquake changes everything for everyone. After the dust settles after the earthquake, Eugenia realizes that it's up to her to make a decision that will change her life forever! This was a pretty good read beside the fact that it's a slow read, you still get into this story! You can't help but to love Eugenia for what she had to endure after moving to America and even what happened during the summer in Italy. This book was definitely a flash back in time with real events that happened in the early to mid-90's, it made the story even more real! It would be interesting to see another book with Eugenia just to see where see ends up in the future! Thank You to Chiara Barzini for writing a pretty good book set in the 90's that made me wish we could go back to a much simpler time in history!! I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book from the Publisher! I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book from Edelweiss! I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley!