The Tortilla Curtain

by T. C. Boyle

Hardcover, 1995

Call number





The Viking Press (1995), Edition: First, 368 pages


Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacker lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he is a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delany into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kambrogi
T. Coraghessan Boyle wrote this book -- a contemporary take on The Grapes of Wrath -- in 1995, when “illegal alien paranoia” was still in its infancy. In that, the book is prophetic.

Two couples serve as competing protagonists. First we have Delaney and Kyra, wealthy and successful, living the dream with their elegant home+pool+maid in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Their liberalism is tested when both the natural world and the international world threaten to overrun their comfortable lives. Cándido and América also want a comfortable life, but since they crossed the border from Mexico they have faced nothing but disaster. Now they camp in a nearby canyon as they search desperately for work, food, and shelter. América will give birth soon, and when Delaney’s car hits Cándido on a twisting canyon road, the immigrants’ hopes begin a steady decline from which it seems they can never recover. These four lives become strangely twisted together in a terrible, inexplicable knot as the suburbanites and the immigrants struggle for the same piece of land, the same American dream.

Boyle is adept at stringing the reader along. The dangling carrot of “what will happen next?” is forever driving the plot from catastrophe to catastrophe. I won’t deny that the book is a page-turner, nor that it forces Americans to reexamine prevalent views on immigration. I was glad that selfish complacency is questioned, and that the other side of the story – the immigrant side – is shown with such tender sympathy. Boyle is a man who knows how to craft a story. However, I can’t help but feel that the tale lacks reality. Its characters are too pat, its purpose too clear, its unrelenting crisis-mode too carefully managed. This story feels as though it took shape in an outline, with the characters and events moved about until they fit perfectly into a preconceived plan that can only result in a certain ending. For all its truths, there is one missing: the simple unpredictability of life, the ray of light that follows a heavy downpour, the kind stranger who is not unheard of even today. There is a sense of that only at the end, and then it comes a bit too late to be savored. This story was shaped by a writer, not by life itself, and that leaves it a little cold, a little calculating. Good stuff, but not quite my cup of tea.
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LibraryThing member phebj
This was my first book by T.C. Boyle and it won’t be my last. I really like his writing and his darkly humorous portrait of the Mossbachers, the privileged white couple who are two of the main characters in the book. The Tortilla Curtain refers to a common phrase for the Mexican/U.S. border. The battle over illegal immigration is played out between the Mossbachers and the Rincons, illegal Mexican immigrants, who are trying to achieve their version of the American Dream while the Mossbachers are trying to protect theirs. This all takes place in Topanga Canyon, an area of Southern California that was never meant to be developed into suburbs. Not only are the two couples on a collision course with each other, they’re also on one with nature.

The stories of the two couples are told in alternating chapters and it was often painful to make the switch from the lives of the Mossbachers to those of the Rincons. The contrast was realistic but extreme. I could see where some people might find the story too bleak or depressing but I thought it was very well done and it was often a page turner for me. Probably the most sobering thing about it was that the book was published 16 years ago (in 1995) and things have not gotten any better in the intervening years.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member kathleen.heady
This may be the best book I've read this year. It made me angry. It made me cry. It made me shake my head in frustration. The characters are over the top and exaggerated, which makes the message of the novel even more direct. I recommend it to everyone who cares about how human beings treat each other.
LibraryThing member michelle.mount
An expose on a social issue that comes off as racist.

This book has basically the same plot as the British book Little Bee. The lives of two social groups – the pretentious liberal Californian and the struggling illegal Mexican – are intertwined in need and guilt resulting in bubbling emotion. Except Little Bee is artful and this book falls flat.

It’s so clear that the author falls into the first group, a pretentious over-educated American. And his insight into the struggling Mexican mindset is so cliché and unimaginative it almost comes off as racist. The Mexican protagonist is painted as a beast of nature with little thought besides survival.

The author owed his audience a deeper understanding of the Mexican side before he under took such a novel. The flatness of the plot makes you hate both chalkboard protagonists and most of all the author for falling short on what was a respectable goal. The book’s goal, shedding light on illegal immigration in an unbiased manner, is it’s only saving grace. But unlike presents – its’ the thought that counts – doesn’t work here.
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LibraryThing member dickcraig
This was a book club selection. This was the first Boyle book I read. It was significant since I was working with migrant workers at the time and it really changed my attitudes towards them. This is the classic "rich person on the hill vs. poor person living in the ravine".
LibraryThing member updraught
A very gripping story of hypocrisy, hope, humanity and permanent failure in so many respects.
LibraryThing member ALLLGooD
I was disappointed with this book because two people raved about it. Maybe it is because I work with people who live in similarly poor conditions and I'm too familiar with the situations presented in the book to be shocked.

The plot was boring and I kept reading it only to see if it got better. The last page came with nothing in sight.… (more)
LibraryThing member kairosdreaming
The Tortilla Curtain is a fictional telling of a year for two very different couples living in California. The first couple are of Mexican descent and are illegal immigrants. The other couple is a Californian yuppie type where the woman is the main breadwinner of the family.

I had heard nothing but great reviews before I read this story. Unfortunately, I didn't find it as stellar. While it paints a fairly accurate picture of what life can be like for these two very different sets of people, it almost draws it too far into the unreal.

I can believe that many misfortunate things happen to the Mexican couple, however, Boyle seems to string it along this much (and even he compares it to the trials of Job) and makes it quite unbelievable towards the end. With everything that happens, it literally does not make sense that this couple does not give up and therefore, in my opinion, makes the book unrealistic.

The other couple, while starting out interesting, soon falls into a character portrayal of being shallow and having no redeeming qualities. While most people are only out for themselves, I have trouble believing that the whole community and this couple are such terrible human beings. Surely Boyle could have included a glimmer of light somewhere.

The ending also leaves much to be desired as it seems very unfinished. It is almost as if the author himself had had it with the book and was giving up.

In all, while this book opens the eyes to the atrocities that happen to illegal aliens it becomes too fanciful and stereotypical to really reach out and grab hold of hearts for its cause.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
'The coyote is not to blame - he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him…The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable.'
- From Tortilla Curtain, pages 214-215 -

T.C. Boyle has created a novel about social injustice which is stunning in its simple yet eloquent language. Two couples inhabit the land just outside of the urban jungle of Los Angeles…Kyra and Delaney, wealthy and comfortable within the confines of their gated community, and Candido and America, illegal immigrants struggling to find a better life far from their native Mexico. Boyle crafts these characters carefully, contrasting the vast gulf between the wealthy and the poor.

'He and Kyra had a lot in common, not only temperamentally, but in terms of their beliefs and ideals too - that was what had attracted them to each other in the first place. They were both perfectionists, for one thing. They abhorred clutter. They were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full-blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships included the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation and the Democratic Party. They preferred the contemporary look to Early American or kitsch. In religious matters, they were agnostic.' -From Tortilla Curtain, page 34-

'After a week and a half of living on so little that his stomach had shrunk and his pants were down around his hips, the effect of all that abundance was devastating. There was no smell of food here, no hint of the rich stew of odors you'd find in a Mexican market - these people sanitized their groceries just as they sanitized their kitchens and toilets and drove the life from everything, imprisoning their produce in jars and cans and plastic pouches, wrapping their meat and even their fish in cellophane - and yet still the sight and proximity of all those comestibles made his knees go weak again.'
- From Tortilla Curtain, pages 122-123 -

Boyle's novel reveals the harsh realities of survival among desperate people. Simple things, like a roof over one's head or food in one's belly, become pivot points upon which this story turns. I found myself wondering, what would I be willing to do when faced with wretched circumstances or the simple fact of starvation?

Churning through the novel are questions about the political quagmire of illegal immigration. Boyle deftly reveals the human side to the immigration issues, forcing the reader to grapple with this problem and wonder about the solutions. Might illegal immigration be merely a symptom of a larger, more difficult problem?

When Delaney's ordered world intersects with Candida's, the normally liberal minded Delaney is forced to address his own racism.

'"…Well did you ever stop to think what happens when they don't get that half-day job spreading manure or stripping shingles off a roof? Where do you think they sleep? What do you think they eat? What would you do in their place?" Jack, ever calm, ever prepared, ever cynical, drew himself up and pointed an admonishing finger. "Don't act surprised, because this is only the beginning. We're under siege here - and there's going to be a backlash. People are fed up with it. Even you. You're fed up with it too, admit it."' -From Tortilla Curtain, page 146 -

Boyle uses symbolism skillfully, employing the natural landscape as a backdrop to the conflicts between the characters. The desolate country haunted by wild and evasive coyotes conjures up a world of fear where survival of the fittest becomes the law of the land. At times deeply disturbing, Tortilla Curtain ultimately leaves the reader with a shadow of hope.

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LibraryThing member Harlan879
T. C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain is not a very good book, overall. The characters, and especially the female characters, are caricatures, the plot is heavy-handed, and the symbolism is a little too obvious. It does have a few good aspects, such as the remarkable ability of Boyle to create a setting. (The only other book of his I've read also shared that strength, but also the same weaknesses.)… (more)
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
recommended for: those who are willing to question their outlook on life & their opinions about other people

Well, even though I am not ignorant about immigration issues, this book made me more aware, and it encouraged me to be thoughtful, so I liked it for that. I liked the writing style and enjoyed most of the story.

I wasn’t wild about some of the events that happened toward the end of the book: I thought they were heavy handed and unnecessary; it was the slice of life events that I found most interesting and I didn’t need any big “blockbuster” events.

Rife with symbolism and commentary on various topics & themes: most especially America’s illegal immigration and Mexico’s dire poverty problems, but also: coyotes & nature/desperate Mexican immigrants/affluent white southern Californians; different kinds of prisons; the drive for survival; nature & human nature; the presence or absence of safety; inequities: have and have-nots human beings; etc.

I haven’t uttered the phrase “it isn’t fair” since I was seven because I’m acutely aware that nothing about life is fair. But, I felt somewhat depressed and despairing when reading this book. Maybe that was part of the point. I do live in California, and I’ve known people from both “sides” of the human condition presented here, and plenty of those (like me) who are in-between the two extremes. I do appreciate that there wasn’t an attempt to give any easy answers regarding illegal immigration.
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LibraryThing member Gary10
Separate, yet closely intertwined tale of an upper middle class yuppie family and a recently immigrated couple from Mexico in the country illegally. Boyle does a fabulous job of showing his middle class readers what the other side of the economic divide looks like. But for me, the big eye opener in this book was how illegal immigration opens up the immigrant to all sorts of criminal victimization and prevents them from seeking any protection or redress. Really adds urgency to the current immigration debate. The book is ultimately a challenging read because Boyle is unrelenting in his willingness to move the story forward without sparing the suffering of the main characters. Dont read this one if you are looking for a happy ending.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hantsuki
I was delightfully surprised to find how similar this book was to The Grapes of Wrath. I know I should not be comparing books like that, but one cannot help oneself when the author introduced the book with a quote from The Grapes of Wrath before the novel even began. With that said, I believe The Tortilla Curtain would have been more depressing for me if it were not for Boyle's ironic style. His ability to make a downright depressing scene somewhat laughable is really quite fascinating to me.… (more)
LibraryThing member beata
Written in Steinbeckian style a story of the barrier between tortilla and bread eaters. There are good and bad people on both sides. A must read for all living in borderline states.
LibraryThing member Paulagraph
I first read The Tortilla Curtain as a book club selection back in the 90s. I was prompted to reread the novel when a friend laid up with a slipped disc mentioned that she had picked it up because of its local (Santa Rosa, CA) notoriety as a censorship target (a parent at a local high school attempted to get the novel removed from a required English class reading list). Although the title of the novel may sound like that of a steamy Tennessee Williams play, the book's DNA is closer to that of the Bible (there are both Fire & Flood), Steinbeck & Voltaire. Allegory & satire are its modes. Hard to miss when the characters are the Mossbachers,an affluent white couple who live in a recently walled & gated luxury subdivision perched above Topanga Canyon in LA (Delaney Mossbacher is, of course, an environmentalist who writes a nature column), and Candido & America (can't get more allegorical than that), a couple of illegal Mexican immigrants who live the most hardscrabble of existences in that same canyon while trying to get work and save money to move out before their baby (aptly named Socorro)is born. As in Voltaire's "Candide," in "the best of all possible worlds" (America the "Golden Mountain") everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong during the course of the novel. In fact, it is almost too much to bear, even though while reading one is fully cognizant that these are representative characters rather than realistic ones. The lives and fates of both families entwine in mostly catastrophic ways throughout. The ending, like that of Grapes of Wrath, comes when it seems that the worst has already happened and there is nothing left to hope for--with a gesture so humane that it must lie more deeply-seated than humankind's vile deeds portend.… (more)
LibraryThing member sarah-e
An accident knocks two men off their intended courses - their normal, quiet lives; their individual attempts at happiness. The white man begins to doubt his relationships with his wife and friends, his own values, even his life's work is affected. The immigrant is injured, unable to work, and must rely on his pregnant, teenage wife to care for him and earn money. Neither man can comprehend the other's situation, and so they find themselves at war with one another's culture and society (and their own). Both see each other as the problem and seem to want the other to understand them in the most basic way, but neither will bend to sympathize.

I can't believe this book was written in the 90's - it's so relevant for today, so expressive of our culture now. I know my feelings on immigration issues have swung from one side to the other - it can be hard to keep a clear head about borders in a border state. This is an important story, very well written, that should be recommended reading for mature high schoolers or anyone older.
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LibraryThing member dreamreader
T.C. Boyle has been one of my favorite writers since college many years ago, with his short story collection, "Descent of Man". Having read all of his subsequent works, Tortilla Curtain resonates as perhaps his finest and most enduring. Like Russell Banks's classic "Continental Drift" and the movie "Crash", it presents a crash of two cultures inexorably moving toward a tragic but inevitable convergence. Others have written here that Boyle's characters are unlikeable, stereotypical. That is true, but it makes them no less real, no less capable of arousing in us a range of emotional response and genuine interest in their outcome. As Andre Dubus did with "House of Sand and Fog", Boyle alternates between the two sets of protagonists/antagonists, revealing both their humanity and their frailties. Read this before the movie comes out.… (more)
LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
On the surface, this book shows the reader two points of view, that of a successful upper middle class couple and that of a poorer than poor illegal immigrant couple. It could easily be a morality tale about the haves and have nots, and it is that to a point. However, it is also about human beings and what they can endure, and still retain their humanity. In this story, one couple retains, the other loses.… (more)
LibraryThing member RavenousReaders
“The lives of two different couples--wealthy Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, and Candido and America Rincon, a pair of Mexican illegals—suddenly collide, in a story that unfolds from the shifting viewpoints of the various characters.” (PCPL catalog record summary). This provocative novel is as timely today as 12 years ago when 1st published.

Reviewed by: Deb B
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LibraryThing member rayski
Two families living very different life styles on a continuous collision course. One living in the big house with the great jobs and the other illegal aliens from mexico living in whatever they could steal. The author attempts to show the struggles both families face, but the book ends up making the mexican husband to be a total loser who continues to make mistake after mistake. While the liberal husband loses his values pretty easily to become a mexican hating bigot. All faster than is believable.… (more)
LibraryThing member littlegeek
I never miss a Boyle novel, I've read them all and this one is my favorite. It delves deeply and compassionately into each character. Boyle is so witty, his writing so fresh and lyrical. Plus I always learn new words from him; he doesn't shirk the unusual word choice. I recommended this book to my mother, who tends to be a bit of a bigot where Mexican-Americans are concerned, and she actually "got it." What higher praise can there be?

oh, and if you like readings, there isn't an author on the planet who is better at them.
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LibraryThing member missmath144
This book depicts the struggles of an illegal immigrant and his wife. While the abrupt ending was good, I found myself wanting the story to be resolved, but it was probably better the way the author left it.
LibraryThing member rventura
T.C. Boyle knows how to put things together. I originally really liked his short stories, and so tried this novel. Typical T.C. Boyle cleverness--although maybe a little too downward-spiraling for me. However, it is a good book.
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Excellent read. Very skillfully addresses the inadvertent hypocrisy of the American middle class and in this case, the eco movement. The protagonist doesn't even realise that he's treating people worse than animals.
LibraryThing member PAUlibrary
A provocative account of immigration in central California centered around two couples: one a pair of wealthy suburbanites, the other illegal immigrants from Mexico.




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