Review: The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

This book landed on my TBR pile as soon as I saw the title. The Tortilla Curtain. There's an elegance to it. And tortillas...The title paired with the cover image had me thinking about the contents of the book long before I picked it up to read. I imagined that curtain hanging from a rod only to be torn to shreds by the prickly hands of the cactus. The almost audible sensation had me counting down the pages of my previous read to get to this one.

Originally, I chose the book to sell in the @AuthorsInk pop-up shop. Had marked a price inside the front cover even. But the bibliophile in me covertly separated it from the inventory and gave it a coveted spot on the living room bookshelf right next to Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, which is next on my agenda.

Delaney Mossbacher and his wife Kyra live in Arroyo Blanco, a subdivision in California. It's a high end community on the edge of the wilderness where coyotes troll the mountainside and occasionally make their way into town where unsuspecting house dogs find themselves at risk of being snatched. Delaney is a nature writer, his wife a successful realtor. They didn't expect to find themselves going toe-to-toe with Candido, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. But then again, does anyone?

Candido and his child bride, America, didn't expect it either. They didn't expect half the bad luck they experienced. After all, they're in the land of milk and honey. The country with the "American Dream" that gets handed out like Oprah hands out sheet sets, books, and cars.

If I had a phrase to describe this story, I'd use: a collision course.

All of them--Delaney, Kyra, their son Jordan, Candido, and America--they're on a collision course that they didn't see coming and sure as heck, didn't ask for. The irony? After the incident with the car, they have no real concept of just how interwoven their lives are. How one decision made by one of them has a direct impact on another. They aren't friends. They aren't even acquaintances. They're simply two couples trying to live their idea of the American dream.

There was a particular passage that struck a cord with me. In it, Delaney is minding his own business but overhears the adolescent son of a neighbor talking trash about Mexican women. It reads like this:

This was Jack's kid. A kid who should know better, a kid with all the advantages, raised right here in Arroyo Blanco...but then, maybe that was the problem, and his next thought was for Jordan [his stepson]: was that the way he was going to turn out? He knew the answer before he'd formulated the question. Of course it was, and there was nothing Kyra or Delaney or anybody else could do about it. That's what he'd tried to tell Kyra over this wall business--it might keep them out, but look what it keeps in.

My mama heart hurt for Jordan, though he's a rather secondary character in the book. I hurt because there was a clear lack of diversity in his life. Because his mother appeared checked out of his life and checked into making another buck selling the biggest houses she could find. Because Delaney, whose heart was on the fence about doing the right thing, had a thousand chances to make a difference in that kid's life. Because that kid lived with his parents' decisions over and over again.

My writer heart loved the story structure right up to the last 20 pages or so. The setting, the descriptions, the characters were all so real. I could hear the crackling of the fire, I could taste the dirt in the bottom of that canyon. Boyle doesn't just create a world for his readers, he invites them into it. It was in that last half hour of the book though, when I was ready for him to Get. To. The. End. I found myself skimming over settings and hurrying my way through because I had to know what happened. His writing style also reminded me of that sage advice writers get--advice that I've given to others:

Chase your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.

It's true. That's what we do to our characters. A good reason to watch yourself around a writer or they may write you into their next novel.

Boyle did this well without making it exhausting. The situations were authentic. They made me think about life, about the struggles of "making it" in life. Yet, as I write this, I think about how the story line is kind of...expected. The illegal immigrant comes to America hoping to achieve "the dream", only to find himself a victim to a myriad of calamities. Meanwhile, the rich white guy and his family feel threatened by "them" and "the unknown" and for some reason can't seem to just have a conversation with someone. Talk about the issues, for goodness sake! And talk about them with people from all walks of life--not just the people who are most like you in skin color and social circles and caste. And don't just spit out your opinion and then put up a block against listening to others. It's about having an open mind. It's about speaking and listening. It's about kindness and acknowledging the deep seated fear that triggers the resistance to change.

Did you know? I'm half Mexican, so the story struck a personal cord with me. In fact, because of my heritage, I was doubly intrigued by the book. Though I don't know much about my culture and didn't grow up learning Spanish, I did learn, at a young age, how to make tortillas. It's probably the only real piece of my culture that I have. Okay, I know how to make tamales too, but my grandmother once said I wasn't that great at it...But tortillas? Yeah, I not only know how to make them from scratch, I've taught my kids how to make them too.

I'd love to hear what you think of The Tortilla Curtain. Who was your favorite character? Were you surprised by the ending? What did you think of T.C. Boyle's writing style? Do you know how to make tortillas? And how does your culture influence your TBR pile?

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