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The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor…

The Barbarian Nurseries

by Héctor Tobar

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I quite like this book, Tobar's second novel. It has some weaknesses: Tobar is a journalist, and his literary prose can be a bit clunky, plus he suffers from a journalist's tendency to answer every question of motivation and circumstance, which to me explains the sometimes awkward omniscient narration. That said, the novel offers a much more complex portrait of race and immigration in LA and Orange County than you get in something like T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain. I like that there aren't any villains in the story. Each character has a complicated set of motivations. Even Araceli, who draws the most readerly sympathy, isn't without her quite significant flaws. Barbarian Nurseries is a departure from the violence and suspense of The Tattooed Soldier; it suggests that Tobar's trajectory as a writer is toward more sensitive exploration of human relationships. Definitely worth reading. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
Audiobook performed by Frankie Alvarez

Scott Torres and his wife, Maureen Thompson, live in an ocean-view Spanish-style McMansion with their three children and a staff they can no longer afford. The gardener and nanny have already been let go when we meet Ariceli Ramirez, “the last Mexican standing” in the household – the last, that is, except for Senor Torres, who is only half-Mexican and doesn’t even speak Spanish. An argument over Maureen’s excessive spending leads to a brief physical altercation, and both Scott and Maureen leave the house in a huff, sure that the other will “get the point” when s/he has to care for the house and children on his/her own. Except, that neither tells the other s/he is leaving, nor, more importantly, bothers to tell Ariceli. Left on her own with the two boys – Brandon, age eleven, and Keenan, age eight – she is first incensed and then worried about how she will manage, and for how long she will have to. She tries but fails to reach the parents via their cell phones and repeated calls to Scott’s office. In fact, she tries every phone number on the carefully detailed “emergency” list posted on the refrigerator. Finally, after three days, with their food supply exhausted, and fearing what would happen if she calls the police, Ariceli decides to find the boys’ paternal grandfather – her only clue an old photo with an address written on the back. And, so she sets out with the boys on a grand adventure towards central Los Angeles.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started this novel and it turned out quite differently from where I thought it was headed. Tobar has written a social satire that examines the division and lack of understanding between two interdependent groups – the affluent suburbanites living in their gated communities versus the nearly invisible cadre of workers, mostly immigrants, many undocumented, who work to maintain the façade of perfection the affluent demand.

The three main characters are all flawed. Ariceli, educated in art history in her native Mexico City, is angry with having to work as a domestic; she is sullen and sarcastic, in thought if not always verbally. Maureen considers herself a perfect mother, but is consumed by the need to spend more money to achieve that perfection; her children’s birthday parties have to be orchestrated, her garden always magazine worthy. Scott has always been a good provider and a successful programmer, but as his inexperience with finances leads to economic disaster he reverts to adolescent behavior, playing computer games and flirting with a female co-worker. That is not to say that they are all flaws and no virtues. Scott and Maureen are obviously caring parents. Ariceli is courageous and resourceful, and shows tenderness to the boys despite her avowed disinterest in (dislike of?) children. When all are thrust into the limelight as a result of that one weekend’s events, they have to finally face some harsh truths about themselves, and all eventually rise to the occasion.

Tobar did get a bit preachy in the last third of the book, as he railed against the media “talking heads,” the injustices of the American legal system, and knee-jerk reactions of the politicians and populace. But he did have some members of each of these groups behave well – a Child Protective Services worker who insisted on seeing the truth of the situation, or a judge who refused to bow to pressure from the DA’s office.

I liked that the story didn’t have a neat resolution, either. I don’t want to include any spoilers so I won’t say more, but the ending Tobar gave us was realistic.

Frankie Alvarez does a fine job performing the audiobook. I liked his pacing and the various voices he used to differentiate the characters.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
The story of Araceli, a Mexican housekeeper for a Orange County family, finds herself in an untenable situation when the nanny is fired and the parents abandon her with two young boys. The abandonment was not intentional - each parent thought the other was at home - and when they return to find Araceli and the boys gone, self-protection wars with fairness as they watch Araceli arrested for kidnapping.

The book deftly contrasts the two cultures - the immigrant Mexican community and the wealthier "Anglo" community - although in a side twist not deeply explored, the father is also of Mexican descent. The story also is a study of the American family. With high standards and goals for their children, a home too large to maintain without help, the expectations of the Torres-Thompson family are being battered by poor investments and an fulfilling job for Scott. The book also moves into the treatment of illegals in the California judicial system, and the racism found in some groups in the region.

But did I enjoy it? Mostly yes. Araceli is an unusual character, artistic, wary and insightful into her observations of southern California life. The older son Brandon was fascinating as the imagination of the well-read boy was piqued by his journey through Los Angeles with Araceli. Recommended. ( )
  wareagle78 | Jan 10, 2015 |
This sounded like it would be a funny book. It wasn't. It is about the stereotypical California family doing well before the financial crash, and their Mexican help, most of whom are let go in the beginning of the book due to financial constraints and how the parents can't do without them. The main part of the story is about how the children wind up in the care of the Mexican cook Araceli,through some incident. What that incident is I don't know, because this book bored me to tears and I could not continue reading it. I wonder if the author was paid by the word, because this is the wordier book I have read in a long time. Every time the Mexican cook makes an appearance we get endless narration of what she is thinking, feeling, believes. This is true of every character and the information. Is never interesting nor required for the story. The other problem I had with what little I got through it was while the stereotyping of the narcissistic upper middle class Californians was repeating over and over, the same was true of how wonderful, perfect pleasant, hardworking the Mexicans were. I am tired of being preached to about how they just want to be in the USA to work hard and do the jobs Americans don't do. This may not have been the case throughout the book, but I will not know because I didn't care enough about the story after the first 75 pages to continue.
Here is an example of how painfully wordy the book is. It is Araceli the cook describing Pepe the grounds keeper who is let go before the reader ever meets him in the book.

"Pepe never had any problems getting the lawn mower started. When he reached down to pull the cord it caused his bicep to escape his sleeve, revealing a mass of taut copper skin that hinted at other patches of skin and muscle beneath the old cotton shirts he wore. Araceli thought there was art in the stains on Pepe’s shirts; they were an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat. A handful of times she had rather boldly brought her lonely fingertips to these canvases. When Pepe arrived on Thursdays, Araceli would open the curtains in the living room and spray and wipe the squeaky clean windows just so she could watch him sweat over the lawn and imagine herself nestled in the protective cinnamon cradle of his skin: and then she would laugh at herself for doing so. I am still a girl with silly daydreams. Pepe’s disorderly masculinity broke the spell of working and living in the house and when she saw him in the frame of the kitchen window she could imagine living in the world outside, in a home with dishes of her own to wash, a desk of her own to polish and fret over, in a room that wasn’t borrowed from someone else".
The author can clearly write, the problem for me was he did way to much of it, in this book. ( )
  zmagic69 | Jun 15, 2014 |
Very Tom Wolfe-esque. ( )
  VenusofUrbino | Dec 24, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
This is a novel about Los Angeles, and maybe the finest we’ll see for many years. It is also a novel that triumphantly transcends geography and delivers a stirring look at the borders of our expectations, both great and small.
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Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn't start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn't begin to roar.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374108994, Hardcover)

A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
A Boston Globe Best Fiction Book of 2011
The great panoramic social novel that Los Angeles deserves—a twenty-first 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 L.A. 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:09 -0400)

After the husband and wife that she works for disappear, live-in maid Araceli takes their two boys on a journey through sprawling Los Angeles to locate their grandfather.

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