With its winding hills and glitzy beaches, the Italian Riviera seems a magical place—a destination ideal for indulging in life’s finer pleasures. But as Brigid Pasulka explores in her second novel, The Sun and Other Stars, even paradise comes with its share of grief and heartbreak.

Pasulka’s novel takes place in the small Italian coastal town of San Benedetto, where tourists flock each summer to sunbathe and unwind. Far from the packed beaches, Etto, a 22-year-old apprentice at his father’s butcher shop, mourns for the recent death of his twin brother and the ensuing suicide of his mother. While his friends carouse with the tourists, Etto ducks off to the field where his brother, a devoted soccer fan, was buried. There he encounters Yuri Fil, a professional Ukrainian soccer player, and his devoted, no-nonsense sister, Zhuki. Even though Etto is perhaps the sole Italian youth with an indifferent attitude toward soccer, Yuri takes it upon himself to coach Etto in the intricacies of the game. Along the way, a romance slowly blossoms between Etto and Zhuki, and Yuri turns into a sort of surrogate father who eventually helps Etto reconnect with his actual father.

Much like Pasulka’s debut novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True—a multigenerational familial saga set in Poland—The Sun and Other Stars takes place in a tight-knit European community. Pasulka’s inspiration for the novel came from the summer she spent in her twenties as an au pair in the small town of Alassio on the Italian Riviera. Even though she was born, raised and currently lives near Chicago, Pasulka claims that in many ways it’s easier for her to write about Europe than her native Midwest: “In Europe or other foreign places, my powers of observation are more heightened. I notice the texture of the napkins, the gestures that natives make to each other, all the things that locals might take for granted.”

Indeed, those small details are what lend her novel credibility. Before she began writing, Pasulka returned to Alassio for research. She spent a good deal of time in the butcher shop that she frequented with her Italian family, questioning and observing the workers. “They let me take photos of the entire shop, every corner of it,” she says. She then translated these observations into perhaps the novel’s most vivid passages, where Etto learns, cut by cut, the fine art of Italian butchering from his father.

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Ultimately, Pasulka writes so convincingly about San Benedetto that the town itself becomes the novel’s most significant character. It’s both a cosmopolitan resort destination and a provincial village, a place where tourists and locals mix uneasily. For those who live there, San Benedetto is both sheltering and suffocating, where townsfolk look after one another and domestic problems are played out in public. This is especially trying for Etto, who wants nothing more than to grieve for his brother and mother in private.

Pasulka was undaunted by her decision to narrate the novel from the point of view of a young male. She describes herself as a tomboy who hung around her brother’s friends while growing up. And as the head of a writing center in a public high school, Pasulka has plenty of opportunities to listen to the Pasulka_coverways that teenagers interact with one another. In fact, Pasulka found it more challenging to strike the appropriate tone for her grieving protagonist: “I’m a very optimistic person, but Etto is, at first, a rather cynical, pessimistic character. It took me a while to get the hang of his cynicism, but once I did, it became surprisingly easy to write in that voice. I guess in some ways optimism is more difficult to express than pessimism.”

It makes sense that the common thread running through The Sun and Other Stars is soccer, or calcio, as it’s referred to in the novel. As Pasulka states,  “You can’t set a book in Italy and not mention soccer at some point.” Etto breaks out of his grief cycle through his secret soccer practices with the Ukrainian star Yuri Fil. What’s more, by introducing Yuri to his star-struck townsfolk, Etto strengthens his bond with the community and, more important, his soccer-obsessed father.

Pasulka mentions that Dante, whose works she read continuously while writing this novel, drew a direct connection between the physical and the spiritual, arguing that the “ultimate heaven on earth can be found in all the little physical tasks and actions that people do in their daily lives.” And in the end, it’s soccer—both the physical act of playing it and the social act of bonding over it—that lifts Etto from the inferno of his despair, offering brief glimpses of a paradisiacal future.

Luke Epplin’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and The Paris Review Daily. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeepplin.