The great panoramic social novel that Los Angeles deserves—a 21st-century, West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities by the only writer qualified to capture the city in all its glory and complexity. With The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar gives our most misunderstood metropolis its great contemporary novel, taking us beyond the glimmer of Hollywood and deeper than camera-ready crime stories to reveal Southern California life as it really is, across its vast, sunshiny sprawl of classes, languages, dreams, and ambitions. Araceli is the live-in maid in the Torres-Thompson household—one of three Mexican employees in a Spanish-style house with lovely views of the Pacific. She has been responsible strictly for the cooking and cleaning, but the recession has hit, and suddenly Araceli is the last Mexican standing—unless you count Scott Torres, though you’d never suspect he was half Mexican but for his last name and an old family photo with central LA in the background. The financial pressure is causing the kind of fights that even Araceli knows the children shouldn’t hear, and then one morning, after a particularly dramatic fight, Araceli wakes to an empty house—except for the two Torres-Thompson boys, little aliens she’s never had to interact with before. Their parents are unreachable, and the only family member she knows of is Señor Torres, the subject of that old family photo. So she does the only thing she can think of and heads to the bus stop to seek out their grandfather. It will be an adventure, she tells the boys. If she only knew. With a precise eye for the telling detail and an unerring way with character, soaring brilliantly and seamlessly among a panorama of viewpoints, Tobar calls on all of his experience—as a novelist, a father, a journalist, a son of Guatemalan immigrants, and a native Angeleno—to deliver a novel as broad, as essential, as alive as the city itself.
“Los Angeles Times journalist Tobar’s second novel is brimming with interwoven stories that form a vibrant portrait of his hometown of Los Angeles…The result is a marvelous pastiche of social commentary ensconced in a family domestic drama.” (Booklist, starred review)
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I loved this book - particularly the way Hector Tobar creates characters. The story shows how the small choices people make on a daily basis can impact not only their lives but the lives of others. The novel delves into big topics like class, labor, race and immigration in a compelling story of a family and their live in housekeeper.
Let me be bold here: I think this book deserves to be a modern classic.
Not because it's the greatest book I've ever read. I liked it a lot, but it falls short of true greatness.
I am, however, comparing it to a lot of other classics I've read in the past few years, and in particular, the great melodramatic social commentaries like Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Middlemarch, North and South, Can You Forgive Her?, The Age of Innocence and so on.
Note that while I liked most of those books, I didn't love them. And I'm not necessarily comparing Héctor Tobar with the likes of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.
But he does exactly what Dickens and Austen and Trollope and Eliot, et al did — in telling a story about characters caught in a particular time and place in rather contrived situations, he tells us about that milieu. And by telling a good story with vibrant and detailed characters, he makes the story interesting.
The milieu here is 21st century Los Angeles. Like most of the above-mentioned social commentarians, Tobar centers the story in a well-to-do household, that of Scott Torres and Maureen Torres-Thompson.
There's a wealth of details just in their names. Scott is a computer geek paper millionaire working at a start-up. He's all but abandoned the Mexican half of his heritage, including his Mexican father who was banned from his household by his wife for making what she considered to be a racially insensitive remark. Maureen is the very model of a nice progressive white lady who thinks racism and sexism and other isms are just ever so awful, while enjoying her stay-at-home mom status with floors washed, toilets scrubbed, meals cooked, and lawns gardened by underpaid Mexicans.
They both are and are not sympathetic people. Scott and Maureen really are pretty ordinary upper-middle class Californians with major materialistic blindness. Scott is utterly emasculated, Maureen is utterly emasculating, without being deliberately cruel. When she goes out and orders an expensive landscaping job, just as Scott has let go all but one of their Mexican help because the recession has devastated their savings and his company is struggling, it precipitates a conflict that leads to the second half of the novel.
Araceli Ramirez is the Torres-Thompsons' cook/housekeeper. She gets paid $250/week plus room and board. Nannying and babysitting is emphatically not part of her job - she doesn't even like kids. But when a series of ill-timed miscommunications lead Scott and Maureen both to leave the house for several days, each believing that their two boys are with the other one, Araceli is stuck with them.
The specific circumstances that cause Scott and Maureen to be unaware that they left their kids with the housekeeper for four days, and that cause Araceli to decide that she needs to take them across L.A. to their grandfather's house, are a bit contrived, a comedy of errors engineered to be convenient to the plot. But once they get underway, it's an interesting journey, because Araceli is the real main character.
She is not a "heroine." She's not a "spunky protagonist." And she's certainly not a nice motherly Latina guardian angel. She's a serious, responsible, hard-working woman who has learned to live with bitterness and lost opportunities. To her employers, she's just the unsmiling housekeeper they dubbed "Ms. Weirdness." In fact, Araceli is an astute observer of human nature who only refrains from making sharp comments because her English isn't very good. She's a former art student who had to leave her university in Mexico City, and now here she is trying to keep these sensitive, imaginative gringa boys out of trouble.
Their adventure turns into an even more farcical comedy of errors involving the police, politicians, celebrities, political activists and race-baiters, with Araceli caught in a media firestorm.
Is there a profound message in this book? Not really. The Barbarian Nurseries doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. America assimilates, rich people tend to be privileged and entitled, rich liberals tend to think very highly of their never-tested principles, no one actually wants to get rid of illegal immigrants except a few politicized useful fools, and just because someone doesn't speak your language doesn't mean they aren't thinking thoughts.
But it's the situation and the characters that make this book. What did Dickens or Trollope ever tell us that we didn't already know? And no one who appreciates the old classics should criticize Héctor Tobar's occasional tilt towards absurdity.
This novel of modern culture and racial friction in Los Angeles doesn't get 5 stars because it didn't have the literary brilliance to make it one of my faves. I think what it was most missing, for me, was humor. There were times when it was almost a satire, but not quite. But still, definitely a recommended read.