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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The plot was boring and I kept reading it only to see if it got better. The last page came with nothing in sight.
- 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.
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.
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.