Book Review: The Tortilla Curtain

TortillaCurtain_Author: T.C. Boyle

Publisher: Viking, 1995

Genre: Literary Fiction

My Rating: A

You are going to find me conflicted on this book. On one hand I loved the book and am so glad I read it. On the other hand, I disliked all the people in it and found them to be almost cartoonish in the way the author painted them at opposite ends of his cultural landscape.

First, let me summarize the book for those of you who haven’t read it.

The story is set in Topanga Canyon in Southern California, an area I’m familiar with. It was easy for me to visualize the setting. The story features two families:

  • The Delaney and Kyra Mossbachers are wealthy, upper middle-class people who care about the environment, their pets, and their gated community of pristine white houses.
  • Candido and America Rincon are illegal immigrants from Mexico who have nothing. They are desperately trying to stay alive while living in the scrub brush area behind the gated community.

Each couple has biases and prejudices against the other even though they’ve never met. It’s really obvious when the bumper of Delaney’s sleek car hits Candido as he runs across the busy road. Delaney does stop to find what he has hit. He’s not sure it was a human. He finds Candido lying in the brush, barely able to move.

There are no calls to 911 or offers to take Candido to an ER. Delaney is worried about his perfect driving record and rising insurance costs. Candido fears someone in authority will catch him and send him back to Mexico. Delaney finally gives him $20 and leaves. When Delaney’s wife starts to freak out, Delaney tells her, “He was just a Mexican.”

There is so much to think and talk about in this book. Our book club kept going for two hours. There were so many issues to discuss: Racism, Immigration, Economic Disparity, and the inability of some people to see others as real human beings.

I didn’t feel any affection for any of the main characters. Well, maybe a little pity for America, the young Mexican woman. I had complete disgust for Kyra, Delaney’s wife. She cared more about the death of her dogs than for her own child. I’m sure the author created these people in this way so we could look at the huge contrasts between the haves and the have-nots. I guess he thought we couldn’t figure it out on our own.

As I said earlier, I’m very glad I read The Tortilla Curtain. I doubt I would have stayed with it if it hadn’t been a book club selection. Ploughing through the gritty parts made me dust off my ideas of social justice. I spent a lot of time thinking about the book. I recommend it to you if you are willing to read some tough stuff and let your brain roam around for several days.

T.C.BoyleAbout the author: T. Coraghessan Boyle (

Mr. Boyle is the author of twenty-three books, including short stories. You can find the list here. He’s a graduated of the celebrated Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He also has a Ph.D. degree in Nineteenth Century British Literature from the University of Iowa. He’s a native of New York but now lives in Northern California.

Everyone in the book club wants to read at least one more book by this author. We are open for suggestions.

 

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9 Responses to Book Review: The Tortilla Curtain

  1. I think i mentioned I read this twice, rare for me. I really liked it and so appropriate for our times. I can see why it made for good discussion.

  2. Wow, y’all discussed this for 2 hours? It must be good!

  3. kelley says:

    Wow, sounds like a mind stretcher! nice review.

  4. Ti says:

    Had the same reaction to this one. I hated everyone in it.

  5. Hmm…not sure I’m in the mood for gritty bits right now, but I’ll keep this in mind. It sounds like a great story!

  6. JoAnn says:

    My book club had a long, lively discussion with this one, too. It seemed to me that Boyle tried to put a human face on both sides of an issue which, seemingly, has no real answer/resolution. I loved the book, but disliked each and every character. The author narrates the audio version and is one of those rare writes that is also a very talented reader.

  7. Valerie Gudorf says:

    I think you might enjoy (or at least find just as compelling) Boyle’s Novel, Drop City, which is set in an Alaskan commune during the late Sixties/early seventies. It draws a stark contrast between the idealism of communal living and the harsh realities that butt up against it in the middle of the Alaska wilderness. It also looks at issues of sexism and racism as they rear their ugly heads among the commune’s denizens. I read it many years ago, and still have occasion to ruminate upon it once in a while. Now that I think about it, I believe I’ll give it a second reading.

  8. Sounds like one of those books everybody hates the characters because of their actions. Must have made for a great discussion.

  9. I’m glad you didn’t adore this book — the review kind of validates my reasons for quitting on it! (But I’ve felt guilty about it ever since I did; maybe I’ll try it again.) I read “The Women” after we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in Wisconsin (where Boyle stays sometimes). I liked that book. (Same as you with TC, most of the people I didn’t like much .. and in “..Women” they were based on real people!)

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