Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Barbarian Nurseries, by Hector Tobar

Araceli Ramirez works for Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, a couple who became wealthy in one of the tech bubbles but has  recently become less wealthy because of bad investments. In fact, they have laid off the gardener and the nanny, leaving Araceli--the housekeeper/cook--as their only domestic employee. A prickly frustrated artist, Araceli is not happy when she realizes they expect her to add child-care duties to her tasks. Of course, Scott and Maureen are not happy either, as Scott is worried about their finances and Maureen is mostly worried about her image. One night, after Maureen spends thousands of dollars to have the mini rainforest in their backyard torn out and replaced with a cactus garden, the two have an argument that becomes a physical confrontation.

The next morning, Maureen takes off with their daughter, not telling anyone she is heading for a spa. At the same time, Scott decides not to come home from work that night without telling anyone. Thus, Araceli finds herself alone for the weekend with the couple's eight- and eleven-year-old sons. After two nights on their own, Araceli decides to try to take the boys to their paternal grandfather's house, but she has only an old picture of the elder Torres, with an address penciled on the back. The threesome sets out on a public transportation journey into areas of Los Angeles so unlike what young Keenan and Brandon have ever experienced that the city seems like a setting in one of Brandon's fantasy novels. After two more days, Maureen and Scott return home, find their children missing, and call the police. The rest of the novel revolves around what will happen to Araceli in the legal system.

We discussed Barbarian Nurseries at book group last night, and the differences of opinion were interesting. Some people found that the first part of the novel--the domestic set-up to the crisis--dragged but enjoyed the unraveling of Araceli's case in the legal system. Others felt exactly the opposite--they thought the beginning of the book was interesting but once the legal system was involved, the book became bogged down in politics and dragged. Some found everything about the situation at the core of the book implausible; others thought it could happen. What we generally agreed upon was that Tobar had a set of issues he wanted to talk about--how Los Angeles is divided along ethnic and class lines, what should be done about immigration, the media's role in exacerbating the city's problems--and  perhaps didn't have the novelistic chops to integrate his commentary on those issues into a novel with a believable plot and well-rounded characters. (One of our members who is familiar with Tobar's work says he is an excellent journalist.) We did, however, give him credit for not making one side heroic and the other side villainous. The major characters in the novel are all equally flawed.

T.C. Boyle's satiric Tortilla Curtain makes many of the same points that Tobar does. (A stronger dose of humor might have improved Barbarian Nurseries.) Mona Simpson's My Hollywood, which focuses on a Filipina nanny, makes similar points about parenting and caretaking of the children of wealth. I preferred Boyle's and Simpson's books to Tobar's, but I do find myself respecting his not totally successful effort.

Favorite passage:
It [the tropical garden] seemed to him it would take a village of Mexicans to keep that thing alive, a platoon of men in straw hats, wading with bare feet into the faux stream that ran through the middle of it. Pepe did it all on his own. He was a village unto himself, apparently.

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