THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES by Hector Tobar

Book Quote:

“There were too many people here now, a crush of bodies on the sidewalks and too many cars on the highways, people crowded into houses and apartment buildings in Santa Ana, in Anaheim, cities that used to be good places to live. The landmarks of Scott’s youth, the burger stands and the diners, were now covered with the grimy stains of time and something else, an alien presence.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (OCT 17, 2011)

From the looks of it you could never tell that the beautiful Torres-Thompson home in fancy Laguna Rancho Estates, is on the cusp of unraveling. But look closely and you can see the edges of the tropical garden coming undone, the lawn not done just right; and these are merely the symptoms of greater troubles. For the couple Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson the country’s financial crisis has come knocking, even in their ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood.

Scott Torres once spearheaded a booming software company that went broke in the software bust. As the book opens, he is reduced to doing mundane work for a new software firm. The family is beset with enough financial insecurities that Scott and Maureen let go of two staff members in their hired help team—the gardener, Pepe, and the babysitter, Lupe. 

The one maid left standing, Araceli Ramirez, once only held cooking and cleaning responsibilities but now finds herself, much to her annoyance, occasionally watching the boys, Brandon and Keenan and the baby, Samantha.

As Araceli cleans and cooks, she silently watches the dynamics of the family unfold. One day, Maureen, tired of cutting corners from the lavish lifestyle she once knew, decides she will splurge on a new desert garden—one that will replace the decaying tropical one that gardener Pepe once so lovingly tended. The astronomical sum she spends on the landscaping is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Scott and Maureen have a heated altercation, witnessed by Araceli. The next morning, Araceli wakes up to find both her jefe and jefa (there’s a little Spanish left untranslated in the book, some of which can’t be made out just by context) gone with the baby. The boys are home alone with her. As it happens, Maureen and Scott leave independently each one assuming, through a set of coincidences, that the other spouse will be around to take care of the boys. Neither is; the boys are left completely alone for three whole days.

At the end of the third day, at her wit’s end, Araceli decides she will bring the boys to Los Angeles where she is sure their Mexican grandfather (Scott’s Dad) lives. The three set off on an adventure to find grandpa. Predictably they never do.

In the meantime, Maureen and Scott have returned home only to find the boys and the housekeeper missing. They immediately jump to the conclusion that the boys have been kidnapped. The police are called in and all hell breaks loose.

The fact that Araceli is an illegal immigrant complicates the situation tenfold and soon the case makes national headlines. After a series of adventures, the boys are reunited with their parents. But the case has by now developed a life of its own. Scott and Maureen for their part become the stand-in for rich, privileged folks who get constantly shown up as the poster children for bad parenting.

Then there’s Araceli. On the one hand she is worshipped by fellow Mexicans as the exploited, underprivileged Mexicana—someone who represents all the collective immigrant angst in the United States. On the other hand, there’s the flag-waving crowd—members of whom insist that Araceli needs to be deported if not permanently jailed for her crimes. As the book makes its way through to the end, Araceli decides to take some of these matters in her own hands.

The Barbarian Nurseries starts out with a good premise but at every stage it moves so predictably that one can see the ending coming way before it actually arrives. The author, Hector Tobar, won a Pulitzer as part of a team at L.A. times covering the L.A. riots. Unfortunately his journalistic brio doesn’t translate well to fiction. The Barbarian Nurseries has one coincidence too many woven into the story until it totally strains credulity. For example, when Maureen leaves home with Samantha and goes to a spa, the delays that hold her there for three whole days are really difficult to swallow.

Tobar does have keen insight into the various segments of the California narrative—the ultra-rich millionaires, the hired help, the immigrant psyche—but he falls short of weaving these narratives into a compelling story. One would have loved to learn more about Araceli’s past in Mexico, or even about Maureen’s Midwestern roots for example. But too often Araceli and her owners fall into clichéd stereotypes, for what people like them should say and do. Even the media circus that attends the “kidnapping” case drags on way too long.

To his credit, Tobar successfully raises some essential questions: about the act of parenting in these intensely wired times and about the place of immigrants in our larger social fabric.

The Barbarian Nurseries has been billed as the great contemporary California novel and it certainly has all the elements for one. Unfortunately its somewhat predictable story has the book degenerating into precisely the thing it derides the most — a sound bite.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 27, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Héctor Tobar
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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October 17, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: California, Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Latin American/Caribbean, y Award Winning Author

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