Do you invite an Italian for lunch in New York City and take her to an Italian restaurant? Sitting across from Chiara Barzini to talk about her debut novel, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake (Doubleday, Aug.), I had a moment of doubt. Would you invite an American author in Rome to lunch at MacDonald’s? But it was a false alarm. I had forgotten that Italians are happy to eat Italian regardless of where they are.
And despite the fact that Barzini speaks beautiful English, perfected during her adolescence in Los Angeles, and wrote her novel in English, she is most definitely Italian: beautiful, sophisticated, charming, and happy to be eating Italian.
We met in Rome, her hometown, three years ago. She told me then about her hippie parents moving the family to California to make movies, and it was obvious to me then that she had the material for a book. Things That Happened, based on those teenage years in L.A., is a coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water tale, the story of a naive young girl arriving in 1992 in a city still reeling from the Rodney King riots and a major earthquake—events that, Barzini says, “had an almost mythological quality.”
She was 15 years old; her brother 12. The family settled in Van Nuys, not the Beverly Hills Barzini had imagined. She went to Taft High School “with 3,500 students, where wearing blue and red was forbidden because they were gang colors,” Barzini recalls. It was very different from the small, classically focused Roman school she had left behind. Worse, despite her fluent English, Barzini was put into an ESL class; most of the other students couldn’t read or write English. Her salvation was the Norton Anthology of English Literature. “I found a copy, carried it everywhere, and made it into honors English.”
Things That Happened has a basis in real events, but ultimately it’s fiction. The narrator, Eugenia, is an endearing character plopped into terrifying circumstances that she manages to overcome with verve, a rebellious spirit, and help from the Madonna, whom she addresses in a running commentary. She’s mistaken for Hispanic and Persian in school; a teacher thinks she’s from Rome, Ga.; her clothes are all wrong; her parents are arrested for sunbathing nude on a public beach. The humor and absurdity are tinged with tragedy as Eugenia discovers her new country and herself.
Barzini’s creative gifts have some basis in her DNA. Her father, Andrea, is a film director, and her mother, Stefania, is an exceptional chef, but Barzini’s obsession was always with her grandfather, Luigi Barzini, whom she calls “my guardian angel.” Luigi studied at Columbia, lived in New York City, and worked as a journalist there. “I always wanted to follow in his footsteps, to live in New York, to be a writer,” Barzini says. Her grandfather’s most famous book was The Italians, published in 1964 by Atheneum. An instant bestseller, it caustically described Italian culture and character for the American market.
When Barzini’s parents decided to go back to Rome in 1999, she chose to stay, attending UC Santa Cruz, although New York was always in her sights. In 2001, she moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn; got a creative writing degree at City College; and worked as a waitress in Greenwich Village. “It was a restaurant where celebrities would show up,” she says. “I was pitching stories to Italian magazines—Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair—but was always trying to make rent. I couldn’t have cared less about waitressing.” Her fellow servers agreed, teasing her with comments like “Chiara puts the wait in waitress.”
And then, in 2007, Barzini got a call from Italy to work on a film, the romantic comedy Scusa ma ti chiamo amore. She moved back to Rome and began a career and also a love affair with her cowriter, Luca Infascelli. Her life settled there. She published short stories, worked on commercial films, and continued to write literary fiction in English.
Francesca Marciano, a friend of her parents, became a mentor. They had a lot in common: Marciano had lived in the U.S. and wrote and published fiction in English. (She was profiled in PW in 2014 for her collection The Other Language, from Pantheon.)
In 2012, Barzini published a collection of stories in English, Sister Stop Breathing, with small press Calamari. She sent it to Marciano and expressed her confusion about what language to write in, after six years in Italy. Marciano said: “What the fuck are you talking about? Write in your voice.” And that voice, telling the story of an Italian teenager turning Valley Girl became the novel.
It took Barzini almost four years to write Things That Happened. The first reader of her manuscript was her inamorato, Infascelli. “He told me that 570 pages was too long and cut it,” she says. “But the fact that he read it in English, that he did that for me, sealed the deal.” (The couple live together in Rome and have two children.)
Barzini had a choice of publishers for Things That Happened but ultimately went with Gerry Howard at Doubleday. He had met her grandfather and even edited a paperback edition of his book The Europeans. After the U.S. deal, Barzini says, “I suddenly became a hot property in Italy.” With success on both continents, she just might have it all.
This profile has been corrected: an earlier version misstated the year the protagonist arrived in LA, the name of the author's high school, the kind of school the author attended in Rome, the spelling of the author's mother's name, and that the author published fiction in Italy, which she did not.