I’ve got high expectations for novels set in Southern California. If very little besides, say, the beaches and Hollywood register for the writer in question, maybe also some smog and traffic, I judge that hard. If you can’t say “I’d take the 101 to the 10 to the 405 for you” and understand that as an expression of love, write about somewhere else, please. So one thing I liked very immediately about Maria Amparo Escandon’s L.A. Weather was the real sense of place. This isn’t just LA, but also Pasadena and Kern County and Magic Mountain and the San Bernardino Mountains, the Santa Ana winds and fire season, etc. I miss my home state, and especially the part of it where I grew up, so when a writer can evoke it meaningfully, I take that as such a gift.
Of course, this is a novel so it’s not just about California, but the people who live there, and here, again, Escandon has a sense of depth and detail. The Alvarado family is in trouble. The family patriarch, Oscar, has lapsed into seeming apathy; his wife, Keila, is threatening divorce; his three adult daughters, Claudia, Olivia, and Patricia all have woes of their own that they regard differently once their own parents’ marriage is on the rocks. The novel unfolds over the course of one year, 2016, when the state is gripped by drought and everyone in the family hits some critical turning point.
Even in the evocation of the Alvarado family, Escandon captures the complexity of the Latinx experience in California. Oscar comes from a family that has lived in California for generations, who inherited land and wealth from before California was part of America; Keila, by contrast, is the granddaughter of Polish Jews who fled to Mexico City and settled there. Oscar is Catholic and American; Keila is Jewish and Mexican, and all parts of those identities matter in the story that unfolds.
And goodness, a lot of story unfolds. All three daughters face turbulence in their own marriages: Olivia, an architect, in her troubled, borderline abusive union with the less successful Felix; Claudia, a chef married to an entertainment executive, whose glamorous life as a cookbook writer and television personality hides problems like her kleptomania, and more; and Patricia, a social media expert whose decision not to leave the nest introduces distance in her marriage with the warm but rarely-present Eric. Olivia has twin daughters, whose accident kicks off the action of the novel; Patricia has a preteen son, who goes through is own search for identity. There are divorces, and affairs, and illnesses, and career changes and threats, and the story of the girls’ former nanny, Lola, an ardent anti-gentrification advocate who comes back into their lives to help Olivia with her daughters, feels like more than the story can meaningfully handle, nor can it fully grapple with the issues of class or implicit matter like colorism and whiteness within the Latinx community. Oh, and the year 2016? also a struggle to incorporate fully: the November election has to be touched on but somehow it barely registers in the text prior to that, which undermines the impact a bit. Escandon handles the climate change issues in the text a little better; Californians have always got to wrestle with issues of heat, water, drought, and fire, no matter how privileged they are, and the weather of the title is crucial to everything that unfolds.
But you can feel Escandon’s affection for this family, even at its most turbulent and soap-operatic. Most importantly, you can buy their affection for each other, even though they also squabble and annoy one another as families inevitably must. If you don’t mind a bit of a slow burn (it does take a while for all the plots to really get going) this is a fine way to spend some time.