Synopsis of the Story:
The Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples who have nothing in common except the fact that they live in the same area. Cándido Rincón (a divorcee) and América (a young woman) are two Mexicans who have entered the United States illegally and who are dreaming of the good life in their own little house somewhere in California. Meanwhile, they are homeless and camping in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, in the hills above Malibu. Another couple, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, have also recently moved to Topanga, in order to be closer to nature yet be close enough to the city to enjoy those amenities. Kyra is a successful real estate agent while Delaney keeps house, looks after Kyra’s son by her first marriage and writes a regular column for an environmentalist magazine.
The two couples’ paths cross unexpectedly when Cándido is hit and injured by Delaney, who is driving his car along the suburban roads near his home. For different reasons, each man prefers not to call the police or an ambulance, and Delaney soothes his conscience by giving Cándido “$20 blood money,” explaining to Kyra that “He’s a Mexican.” From that moment on, the lives of the two couples are constantly influenced by the other’s.
After the accident, Cándido’s problems deepen. With América pregnant, his shame at not being able to get a job and procure a home and food for his family increases, especially when América decides to find some illegal—and possibly dangerous—work herself. At one point in the novel, they are forced to go through the trash cans behind a convenience store so as not to starve.
The Mossbachers are also having problems, though of an altogether different nature. Comfortably settled in their new home, they are faced with the cruelty of nature when one of their two pet dogs is killed by a coyote. In addition, the majority of inhabitants of their exclusive estate feel increasingly disturbed and threatened by the presence of—as they see it—potentially criminal, illegal aliens and vote for a wall to be built around the whole estate.
Cándido has a stroke of luck when he is given a free turkey at a grocery store by another customer, who has just received it through the store’s Thanksgiving promotion. When Cándido starts roasting the bird back in their shelter, he inadvertently causes a fire which spreads so quickly that even the gated community the Mossbachers live in has to be evacuated.
In the midst of the escalating disasters, América gives birth to a daughter, whom she suspects might be blind. But the couple has no money to see the doctor. Time and again in the novel, however, it is hinted at that the real perpetrators can be found inside rather than outside the projected wall: well-to-do people insensitive to the plight of the have-nots; WASP racists afraid of being overrun by Latinos and of the end of white supremacy; business people employing illegal immigrants to maximise their own profit without caring for the welfare of those who work for them; and criminals posing as honourable members of society.
Tortilla Curtain is the phrase used to describe the thin borders between Mexico and the United States which immigrants cross over in their attempt to live better lives. In this novel, TC Boyle offers his readers a plot and characters who are not only involved in the world of illegal aliens but whose lives will never be the same. It is as if this novel’s plot was lifted off the pages of a daily newspapers and one for which there is no easy solution.
The book is narrated through chapters told in the alternating voices of Candido and Delaney until their two voices are ultimately linked together as one struggles against his better judgement and the other struggles to maintain his dignity
Boyle’s The Tortillia Curtain tackles a serious set of social issues . Well, while one wouldn’t want to pretend that all Southern Californians of means are shallow , nothing in the portrait Boyle creates here rings untrue. There must be thousands of people who fit this image. It is important to make the point that he doesn’t present either the Californian family or the Mexican immagrant family as a symbol. They are real people. They don’t stand for anything else. And while the extreme dichotomy posed between the wealth and well being of the one and the poverty and marginal health of the other do serve the purpose of highlighting the issue of the extreme inequities in the distribution of goods and services in this country, Boyle does not suggest a solution. Rather, he is interested in showing us what happens when these extremes come into contact in unexpected circumstances. What he has given us is a story of people in different circumstances responding as they likely would – as their training and experience have prepared them to. I think that all he is saying is that extremes of expectation, in conflict, will generate extremes of behavior.
I enjoyed the book very much. Apart from Boyle’s considerable skill with words, his characters were vivid and the plot – though heavy on coincidence is interesting and keeps the reader focused till the end.