Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane

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Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A story of the lengths to which three generations of one family will go to escape the legacy of their Mexican background when they settle in Los Angeles. It's definitely worth a read and possibly a purchase.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2005
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN: 0743478428

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Rita Mae Jones lives with her parents, Clara and Larry, on Las Focas, a tiny island off the coast of California, where her father works in the prison. Rita is thirteen years old and she longs to escape. It's 1959.

In 1916 Toribio Cesares escaped from the hell of central Mexico and settled in Los Angeles. He hoped for a better life for himself and his daughter Maria, but he found himself living in poverty and facing discrimination at every turn.

Maria Caesar (Toribio changed the surname to celebrate their arrival in Los Angeles) wanted to escape the barrio and make a name for herself in films. In 1923 she's working on the Pantheon Pictures lot in Culver City - as a prostitute in the brothel.

Clara is Maria's illegitimate daughter. Her mother has no idea which of her customers fathered her. In 1945 she decides to find a rich man to take her away from the drudgery of working as a lowly sewing machinist on that same film lot where her mother worked in the brothel. She manages to trap Larry Jones into marriage, but Larry's not what she thinks or expects.

This book came bundled with a few others that I wanted to read but I didn't have any great hopes of it. It seemed as though the publishers didn't either. Apart from a comment from Julie Burchill (which can be a mixed blessing) all they could come up with was the fact that the book had been long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, thus neatly making the point that it hadn't even made the shortlist. I didn't actually intend to read it: I simply wanted to check that it could go straight into the charity bag. I would have missed a good story.

It's a tale that weaves its way back and forth over the years, putting me in mind of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, although this book is not as accomplished, by any means. It's a story about what people will do when they're faced with poverty, violence, discrimination and despair. It's about what they will do to escape and why, so often, they simply take their problems with them. I couldn't believe that Clara would bleach the hair of her new-born daughter to the extent that the scalp was burnt simply to hide the black hair which would give away their Mexican origins.

At a time when America was welcoming immigrants, that generosity didn't extend to Mexicans and any who did manage to settle faced outrageous discrimination. Land was for sale - but not to Mexicans. At times it went beyond discrimination and became violence. There are some scenes in the book where the violence is graphically described. It's in context, but nevertheless the scenes are very disturbing and even a few days after finishing the book some of it still sits uncomfortably in my mind. On the other hand and despite the fact that parts of the book are actually set in a brothel there are not many graphic descriptions of sexuality other than a rape. You'll have realised by now that the lives of Toribio's descendants were not always pleasant.

The writing is good and very readable. Sentence structures are not overly complicated and it's easy to grasp the meaning on a first reading. I read the book in two sittings without problems, spurred on, perhaps by the fact that that the characterisation is good. I felt involved with all the characters, although the women came across as more fully-formed than the men, and I really wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted closure for Maria and Clara and an escape for Rita Mae. The ending is neat, almost inevitable and rather shocking.

The book is the product of meticulous research as well as local knowledge. Cochrane was at university in California for a time as part of her American literature course at Sussex University. I don't usually warm to books set other than in a country where the writer is a native but this didn't jar at all. I'm glad it didn't end up in the charity bag!

You might also enjoy No Matter What by Wendy Kremer.

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Buy Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Escape Routes for Beginners by Kira Cochrane at


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