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.