THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES by Hector Tobar
“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 Scottâ€™s youth, the burger stands and the diners, were now covered with the grimy stains of time and something else, an alien presence.”
Review by Poornima Apte Â (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 countryâ€™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 teamâ€”the gardener, Pepe, and the babysitter, Lupe.Â
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 gardenâ€”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 camelâ€™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 (thereâ€™s a little Spanish left untranslated in the book, some of which canâ€™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 witâ€™s end, Araceli decides she will bring the boys to Los Angeles where she is sure their Mexican grandfather (Scottâ€™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 thereâ€™s Araceli. On the one hand she is worshipped by fellow Mexicans as the exploited, underprivileged Mexicanaâ€”someone who represents all the collective immigrant angst in the United States. On the other hand, thereâ€™s the flag-waving crowdâ€”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 doesnâ€™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 narrativeâ€”the ultra-rich millionaires, the hired help, the immigrant psycheâ€”but he falls short of weaving these narratives into a compelling story. One would have loved to learn more about Araceliâ€™s past in Mexico, or even about Maureenâ€™s Midwestern roots for example. But too often Araceli and her owners fall into clichĂ©d stereotypes, for what people like them should say and do. Even the media circus that attends the â€śkidnappingâ€ť 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 â€” a sound bite.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 14 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 27, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||HĂ©ctor Tobar|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
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