(Audio)Book Talk: *The Barbarian Nurseries*, by Héctor Tobar

cover: THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES by Hector Tobar, via IndieBound
The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel
Héctor Tobar
Audiobook narrated by Frankie J. Alvarez
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0374108994 / 9780374108991)*
Fiction, 432 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio via Audible.com–Audible ASIN B005PTOP5M)
Reason for Reading: personal interest, local/topical, “LA’s Summer Reading Guide” on CBSLA.com
*paperback release scheduled September 2012

Opening lines: “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. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun.”

Book description, via the publisher’s website: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 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.

Comments: The blurb at the head of the publisher’s page for The Barbarian Nurseries suggests that it is a “a twenty-first century, West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities–Los Angeles’ great panoramic social novel.” Sometimes that catalog copy is effective shorthand for what a book offers and sometimes it’s not, but in this case it’s not far off the mark–and not just because “bonfires” (of various origin, but usually due to natural causes) are probably much more common in the reclaimed desert of Southern California than they are in New York City. Ambitious in scope and specific in its details, The Barbarian Nurseries also captures a particular moment in time across various socioeconomic strata in an American metropolis, and like Tom Wolfe, Héctor Tobar comes to fiction from a background in journalism. That said, Tobar’s satire isn’t quite as biting as Wolfe’s can be, but neither is his writing subject to Wolfe’s over-the-top, hyperbolic tendencies.

The central plot of The Barbarian Nurseries involves the family of Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, who bought their home in an exclusive Orange County gated community when the software company they launched was acquired several years earlier, enabling a new lifestyle maintained with the help of three Spanish-speaking domestic employees. But now the recession has come to their single-income household, and they’ve had to let the gardener and the nanny go, adding to the work of their live-in housekeeper Araceli Ramirez–not that anyone discussed this with her. There’s not much discussion of anything in the Torres-Thompson home, really, but there are increasingly frequent arguments about money; the morning after an unusually vicious one of those arguments, Araceli discovers that both Scott and Maureen have left the house–but their sons, 11-year-old Brandon and 8-year-old Kenan, are still at home. Two days and assorted miscommunications later, neither parent has returned, and Araceli is weary; she wasn’t hired to take care of children. The only extended-family member she knows about is Scott’s father, and the only clue she has to his whereabouts is an old photo taken years earlier in East Los Angeles–but Araceli’s people don’t move around much, so she has no reason to think he wouldn’t still be there, and she decides that the best course of action would be to deliver the boys to their grandfather until their parents return. And when the parents do return–separately, as they left–they’re distressed to find that both their sons and their maid are missing.

The Barbarian Nurseries is primarily a plot-driven novel–and that plot progresses based on a number of misunderstandings–but much of the story is underpinned by contemporary themes that have particular resonance in Southern California: socio-economic and class conflict, notably that involving recent Spanish-speaking immigrants, political and media opportunism arising from those conflicts, and exactly how “assimilated Latinos”–long-term or native-born residents who look “white” and whose only daily use of the Spanish language is their own last names–fit into the picture. A less weighty, but equally SoCal, theme concerns keeping up appearances–a lifestyle you really can’t afford, a persona and self-presentation that overrides genuine intimacy and connection.

By shifting perspectives between Maureen, Scott, Araceli, and various secondary characters, Tobar is able to explore a range of attitudes and experiences of modern life in and around Greater Los Angeles, as well as reflections on how it’s changed in recent decades. As a non-native who married into an assimilated-Latino family, I found some of the perspectives quite insightful and enlightening. However, a trade-off of presenting such a varied cast of characters can be that development of individuals suffers, and I think that’s an issue here. I couldn’t sustain much sympathy for Scott and Maureen, and I felt that Maureen in particular was more of a “type” than an individual. That said, the novel hinges on Araceli, and I thought she was brought to life with complexity and humanity. I also enjoyed Brandon Torres-Thompson, the 11-year-old. He’s bright, bookish and imaginative, and has been sheltered to the degree that he seems to give fiction and fact equal weight as he encounters the world; I’ve known a few kids like him. (I’ve lived with a kid like him.)

I began The Barbarian Nurseries on audio at the same time I was reading Bridget Hoida’s So L.A., and they provided interesting counterpoint to one another. (It seems that the only way I can successfully two-time books is if I’m listening to one of them.) It was a good choice for a commuting book (particularly for this Los Angeles commuter), but unlike some audios where good narration seems to bring out weaknesses in the writing, I felt that the quality of Héctor Tobar’s writing wasn’t always well-served by Frankie J. Alvarez’s reading. His handling of the prose passages was fine, but I didn’t care for many of his character voices. That said, it wasn’t problematic enough to make me sorry I read this in audio format, as the print version is a chunkster–but if you’re up for chunksters, you might want to go the print route instead.

The Barbarian Nurseries came to my attention as a “read it soon” book when I was compiling the “Summer Reading Guide” for CBSLA, and I think it could provoke some thoughtful and spirited discussion, particularly among Southern California readers and their book groups.

Rating: Book–4/5; Audio–3.5/5
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