By Claire Lombardo
By María Amparo Escandón
At the heart of many family novels is a house, the singular, private space in which characters get to misbehave. To write a family novel is to move into that house and delve unflinchingly into its inevitable messes.
In her third novel, “L.A. Weather,” María Amparo Escandón drops us into the Rancho Verde four-bedroom home of the Alvarados, a wealthy Mexican American family harboring a host of secrets and lies. It’s a capacious book, chock-full of human drama set against the backdrop of a record-breaking California drought, and Escandón writes with a great deal of energy and love for her characters.
Oscar Alvarado has staked his fortune on a failing almond orchard and spends his days lethargically watching the Weather Channel. Keila, his wife of 39 years, is the Mexican-born granddaughter of Polish grandparents killed in a concentration camp, a ceramist known for her renderings of nude couples; when we meet her, she’s on a “crossed-legs strike,” withholding sex from her apathetic husband. They have three adult daughters: Claudia, a celebrity chef with a penchant for petty theft; Olivia, an architect and the mother of twins who’s trapped in a toxic marriage; and Patricia, a digital media maven with a roving eye and a gender-questioning adolescent son.
The novel opens with the near-drowning of Olivia’s twins, who are toddlers. Despite the hugeness of this event, our focus quickly shifts to another crisis: Keila wants a divorce from Oscar, but the daughters insist that their parents spend a year trying to fix their marriage. This is a critical moment for two reasons: First, it sets a precedent for the offhand way Escandón’s novel — and the family therein — will treat major life events; and second, it presents us with a timeline — a single year — within which the novel will unfold, confines that end up feeling tight.
Many, many, many things happen in “L.A. Weather.” There are three affairs, three comas, three divorces, one separation, an exploration of gender identity, a brain tumor, in vitro fertilization, the end of a career and the threat of bankruptcy. There are other health issues, relationship problems and characters reckoning with past traumas, including a miscarriage and a rape. Most of these struggles take place in 2016, and are exacerbated by drought, threat of wildfire and the presidential election.
There’s a lot going on — and in some ways, the chaos and the mess feel true to family life. The novel sometimes even seems aware of its own outrageousness, as when one character says, “The more I think about it, the more I believe this scheme could only work if we were living in Telenovelaland.” But there’s a dearth of fallout or causality, which forces the reader to repeatedly suspend her disbelief. Events happen quickly, and often have little bearing on each other; we leave one scene and enter another without being given a chance to reflect. The characters are caught up in a similar whirlwind; they endure “life-changing” events but within a few pages are back to contemplating trivialities like traffic — and then go careening toward entirely new life-changing events. Their actions are more than once described as involuntary — one character buys an orchard “on impulse”; another gets married “on a whim” — and this doesn’t quite feel psychologically realistic. The Alvarados are also not an especially sympathetic bunch, which is not in itself objectionable — bad behavior is fruitful fictional fodder. But there is a lack of accountability, of engagement with the world, that makes it difficult to invest in the characters or to grasp what’s really at stake.
Escandón sets up two tracks: the one where the story runs and its more complex neighbor, traversing the terrain of family history and the physical world. While the former is difficult to digest, the latter is masterfully executed, rife with nuance and detail and the telltale signs of a gifted writer who knows her material well. Escandón’s narrative voice is often witty and warm, and her meditations on Los Angeles are lush and lyrical. Of the Pacific Ocean, she writes: “Its undulating surface shimmered in bright oranges and reds, sequins in a drag queen’s gown. This was a light — a hyper-real, Technicolor light — that only existed on celluloid and in Los Angeles.”
Toward the end of the book, Oscar muses: “There were hundreds of cities within his city, each telling a different story. He’d need several lifetimes to understand its many incarnations.” The same could be said for “L.A. Weather”: Though it’s a lively and ambitious family novel, it ultimately seems to be spilling out beyond its real estate.
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