16 reviews

The Tortilla Curtain
by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Published: 1996-09-01
Paperback : 355 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 7 of 7 members
Winner of the Prix Medicis Etranger Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexic...
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Winner of the Prix Medicis Etranger

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he 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 Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.



Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces--the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye--but he wasn't very successful. This wasn't a statistic in an actuarial table tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this wasn't random and impersonal. It had happened to him, Delaney Mossbacher, of 32 Piñon Drive, Arroyo Blanco Estates, a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car with personalized plates, and it shook him to the core. Everywhere he turned he saw those red-flecked eyes, the rictus of the mouth, the rotten teeth and incongruous shock of gray in the heavy black brush of the mustache--they infested his dreams, cut through his waking hours like a window on another reality. He saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan's elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fine herbes at Emilio's in the shank of the evening. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Questions from Publisher's Reading Guide:

1. At the beginning of the story, Delaney accidentally hits Cándido with his car. "For a long moment, they stood there, examining each other, unwitting perpetrator and unwitting victim." How does this encounter set the tone for the events that follow? Does it come full circle in the final scene?

2. The novel is forged on the cultural, social, and financial differences between the Mossbachers and the Rincóns. It alternates between the two couples' points of view, allowing the reader to enter the lives of both families. How does this technique propel the story? Do you feel that you got to know each of the couples equally well? Was the author fair in his portrayal of each of the couples? Is he too harsh in his portrayal of the Mossbachers, as one reviewer suggested?

3. Cándido and America crossed the border in search of a better life for themselves and their unborn child. They do not ask for much and are willing to work hard, yet they are constantly met with resistance and failure. There are numerous references to Cándido's bad luck. Is he unlucky? Is there anything he could have done to have changed his luck? What does this story say about the American dream?

4. The symbol of the coyote appears throughout the novel and represents illegal Mexican immigrants. In his nature column, Delaney writes, "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." He concludes the same column by writing, "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." How do these passages reflect Delaney's mixed feelings about illegal immigrants? Is he a hypocrite? As the novel progresses, Delaney's humanistic beliefs give way to racism and resentment, and he directs his rage at all illegal immigrants onto Cándido. When confronted with evidence that Cándido is not the vandal at Arroyo Blanco, he destroys it. Why does Delaney need to believe that the vandal is Cándido? How does Delaney evolve from being a "liberal humanist" to a racist?

5. Boundaries—both real and imagined—play a large role in the novel, especially the front gate at Arroyo Blanco Estates. In what other instances do boundaries appear and what do they represent? What roles do the different characters play in constructing these boundaries?

6. In a recent interview Boyle stated, "If it's satire, it has to bite somebody, has to have teeth in it, otherwise it's useless." How does satire affect The Tortilla Curtain and the telling of the story? Is it a successful technique?

7. The novel concludes with Delaney confronting Cándido with a gun, followed by a mud slide. In an almost simultaneous moment, Cándido realizes his baby is missing and reaches down to offer Delaney a hand. One is a frightening image and the other an act of generosity. How do these contrasting images play off one another? Did the conclusion leave you with a feeling of hope or despair?

8. During an argument with Jack Jardine, Delaney makes the following statement: "Do you realize what you're saying? Immigrants are the lifeblood of this country—and neither of us would be standing here today if it wasn't." In another instance, Jack says to Delaney, "What do you expect, when all you bleeding hearts want to invite the whole world in here to feed at our trough without a thought as to who's going to pay for it, as if the American taxpayer was like Jesus Christ with his loaves and fishes." How do these two sentiments play out in the novel and in the larger issue of immigration?

9. The author stated in the Conversation section of this guide that he feels it is a novelist's job to inhabit people of other races and sexes, for his own understanding of an issue as well as for the reader's. Did The Tortilla Curtain help you to better understand the issue of immigration and the people involved?

10. The author does not offer a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, for which he was praised by several reviewers. Do you think he should have offered a solution?

Suggested by Members

How has illegal immigration affected the schools in your own neighborhood?
Do you think your own neighborhood needs a security fence or other safety measures?
Why is there such a contrast between the U.S. and everything to the South?
by original (see profile) 11/22/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Yes, the book leads to lively discussion on acomples issue
by original (see profile) 11/22/14
A club could serve Mexican food and drink, or might even want to try some of the more expensive food served at the party of a rich group in the book. The contrast could be very interesting.
by PECHEMAN (see profile) 08/04/09
we had a mexican themed night from sangria..tacos to sopapilla cheesecake for dessert!
Restaurant idea...
by kfoulks (see profile) 09/17/08
MEXICAN!! If possible, maybe a real Mexican restaurant, depending where you live.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Tortilla Curtain"by original (see profile) 11/22/14

Although fiction, this book gives insight into one of America's most complex problems -- illegal immigration. The reader sees the problem from the point of view of the illegal immigrant and the property... (read more)

  "The tortilla Curtian. "by Jeannette999 (see profile) 03/07/14

It was a great book to discuss and very interesting and ethnic!

  "The Tortilla Curtain"by buzybasket (see profile) 03/31/11

  "Think illegal immigration has an easy solution?"by efoster (see profile) 01/02/11

Then read this book. Once you are introduced to the hardships of the characters, it will deepen your understanding of the issue.

  "Very dramatic............can't put it down!"by PECHEMAN (see profile) 08/04/09

This book was very moving to me..it truly showed the struggle of this poor Mexican couple..and the difference in the lives of these two couples...I think it is definitely worth the read...great discussion... (read more)

  "Great Book, Great Discussion"by SJ (see profile) 06/23/09

So many issues brought up by this one, and just a fantastic read.

  "Great Read, Good Discussion"by tonis (see profile) 11/27/08

A lot to discuss with this one - the characters, culture and stereotypes. Very thoughtful discussion on this one.

  "One of my favorites of all time"by bookgrouplover (see profile) 10/30/08

Wonderful discussion book, about assumptoins of class, poverty, etc. But, the book isn't really as heavy as I'm making it out to be. Parts very funny. The "tragi-comic" in the description says it best.... (read more)

  "Great discussion topics"by madrien (see profile) 10/10/08

While this book was not one of my favorite books, it definitely gave our group some interesting and provocative topics for discussion. Despite the fact that none of us really liked the book, we were all... (read more)

  "The dilemma of immigration brought home"by kfoulks (see profile) 09/17/08

This would, I imagine, bring up great discussion about immigration. This book flips back and forth between a wealthy, white California family and a Mexican immigrant living just outside the... (read more)

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