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The Barbarian Nurseries

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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.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2011

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About the author

Héctor Tobar

18 books155 followers
Héctor Tobar, now a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a novelist. He is the author of Translation Nation and The Tattooed Soldier. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he is a native of the city of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children.

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5 stars
701 (21%)
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1,310 (40%)
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884 (27%)
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294 (8%)
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80 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 564 reviews
Profile Image for David.
Author 18 books336 followers
September 17, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
485 reviews812 followers
December 23, 2022
My introduction to the fiction of Héctor Tobar is his 2011 novel The Barbarian Nurseries. This has garnered a few comparisons to The Bonfire of the Vanities and that might be true if nothing happened in The Bonfire of the Vanities and the characters all got along. I abandoned this at the 16% mark. The craft is excellent in regard to prose and character detail, but Tobar colors his characters with 64 Crayons when 24 would've been plenty. As a reader I got details, details and more details told to me, but no story.

I wish I could give this a higher rating because the novel is clearly about something, much of it the Mexican housekeeper/ nanny class in Orange County. I would've liked a novel that focused mainly on the stoic housekeeper Araceli and revealed her background and character through a story. I don't need a car accident or domestic crime straight out of a Dick Wolf-produced TV show, but I can only catalog so many details about so many characters without a story, and 422 pages of this is a lot to ask of me as a reader.

Tobar popped onto my radar by virtue of his debut novel The Tattooed Solider that appeared on a list of the 20 best L.A. noir. My library didn't carry that one, so I gave The Barbarian Nurseries a try.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,910 followers
August 30, 2011
This lardful lump of language is heavy-handed and implausible. It took me nearly six weeks to finish, when it should have taken one to two weeks at most. Some days I could only read two or three pages. Not only is the story slow-moving and tedious, but the author's agenda is overpowering. Whenever he wants to be sure you get his point, he spells it out by putting it fully formed into the thoughts of one of the characters. I felt like I was constantly being bludgeoned with authorial intent.

The story becomes progressively more implausible after Araceli is left alone with the two children of her employers. It's just not realistic to think that her only solution would be to take them on a long trek across L.A. with only a hazy destination. The author makes a special point of letting us know throughout the book that Araceli is not dumb. So why would she do something so ridiculous?

For all his heavy-handed treatment, it's hard to say after finishing the book exactly what points the author was trying to make. Unfair distribution of wealth is nothing new. Unfair treatment of Mexican immigrants is not news, either. Was he trying to say that Mexican immigrants are intelligent and hard-working and deserve some respect? Maybe. For me the message was cloudy and the story was not enjoyable.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
November 5, 2011
Is it a river or a big ditch?

I loved this book. Tobar creates an accurate account of how people from different walks of life interact in Los Angeles and Orange County. I’ve lived here for over 30 years and his insights were startling but at the same time felt like home truths. Araceli Ramirez is an educated woman from Mexico City. She’s also in the States illegally and the only job she’s been able to get is as a housekeeper to an outwardly prosperous Irvine couple with two young boys, ages 9 and 11, and an infant daughter. With the downward trend in the economy this affluent couple let their gardener and nanny go leaving Araceli ‘the last Mexican standing’. Araceli is now not just overworked but lonely in an alien household. There’s worse to come though. The couple have an argument that turns physical and Maureen, the wife, takes her daughter and escapes to a spa without telling anyone. Her husband Scott feels ashamed of pushing his wife. He can’t face her or his family or the maid who witnessed his outburst so he also stays away from home for a few days. Araceli’s alone with her two precocious charges and after two days of abandonment and no word from either of the boy’s parents she sets off to find their paternal grandfather Juan Torres. Their odyssey begins. The eldest boy who’s read lot’s of science fiction and adventure stories sees their train and bus rides as an extension of these tales. Here Tobar slips in some South American magical realism which is delightful. To the boy the homeless living near the train tracks are refugees from mythic wars with their scars, torn clothing and tents with hearth fires. There’s even a cement ditch that’s said to be the Los Angeles river! Truth and fiction entwine in a funny/sad way. Then things turn serious.

Did Araceli, the evil alien, kidnap the boys or rescue them? This plays out on the news and morphs into a standoff between Hispanics and Anglos. Tobar shows the best and the worst of Los Angeles and all her people and he does it with wonderful precision and without vilifying any group. He highlights what’s good and bad in the different cultures against the backdrop of an economy that’s not kind to anyone. Particularly interesting to me was how each person defines their Americaness. Third generation Mexican Americans see their place in our culture differently than first generation immigrants. Then there are the Anglo’s living in or near integrated neighborhoods. In such places the kids begin to embrace one another’s cultures often flipping the importance of Anglo tradition in favor of Hispanic heritage. The white kids immerse themselves in the dominant Hispanic culture they’re living in. Sadly some of their parents react to this by becoming staunchly racist. They’re afraid of losing themselves and whatever power they perceive they have or had. I know this all sounds ponderously serious and it is but Tobar also makes it fun as well revelatory.
Profile Image for Gary  the Bookworm.
130 reviews127 followers
June 18, 2013

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos I took a break from reading Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's early 20th Century tome about the collapse of an German family, to read about a modern Californian family's demise. Because we live in a time of hyper-descent, it takes the Torres-Thompson family less than a decade to accomplish what Buddenbrooks did over three generations. This particular story concerns the fallout from economic malaise on the lives of a pampered family living in a gated community by the sea. Their stoic Mexican housekeeper, who battles in isolation against their domestic disharmony, is drawn into a reluctant intimacy with the children, when each parent flees separately after an epic battle over money. With her limited English and a naive viewpoint about familial stability, Araceli sets forth with the two children to find an estranged grandfather in the teeming urban landscape of Los Angeles, with nothing but a faded photograph and a scribbled address as her guide. Imagine Huck Finn and Jim riding suburban transport into the heartland.

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

The boys, Orange County aristocrats, try to make sense out of what they encounter by referencing an fantasy-adventure series. Their parents' eventual return leads to a terrifying police chase and trumped-up charges against the housekeeper, whose case becomes a cause célèbre for the newly-empowered Latino community and pits her against the xenophobic establishment. It all sounds terribly exciting and relevant but a lot of it depends on implausible plot twists and it suffers from a diminishing sense of danger as the resolution becomes obvious. The title may be an ironic reference to the legions of undocumented immigrants who inspire fear and distrust as a group while, as individuals, they toil daily to care for our homes, gardens and children. Some of the dialogue is written in Spanish. This serves to accentuate the conflict that immigration provokes in our national conversation. Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, has written an engrossing tale about America's most polarizing issue, but in the end, his contribution seems as mired in ambivalence as it is for everyone else.

Sent from my iPad
Profile Image for Berengaria.
361 reviews64 followers
June 7, 2023
This startlingly well-written novel offers up a tale in which everybody is not only a little wrong, but also a little right. And because nothing is ever as clear-cut as it seems, the lives of 3 people go to hell in a handbasket in the media chaos that engulfs them.

Themes: culture clash (US/Mexico), illegal immigration to California, immigrant communities, liberal privilege, class, the lives of modern servants, pressure groups, the unreliability of media and hearsay, and last but not least Orange County and LA herself.

"The Barbarian Nurseries" uses a three-act structure that feels like it overshoots its natural ending at the close of the second act when the story problem is solved. There's more to the story? the reader asks. Sí, señor! There is more to the story! (Errr....okay. I'll keep reading...)

And indeed, there is far more to the story. Trust your author. He has a plan you haven't figured out yet.

In a way, this novel reminds me of the structure of 100 Years of Solitude. Each act becomes more outrageous and absurd as the novel progresses, and I was predicting the same thing here. But no, Tobar doesn't go absurdist, he goes Hollywood. Good Hollywood.

What starts out with cool understatement speeds along into an ever increasing cast-of-thousands movie like narrative that culminates in, yes, oh yes, a feel-good Happy End™ complete with metaphorical fireworks display.

Fun for the whole family! *cue the soundtrack music*

If you are looking to find gritty new political insights into the gulf between native Californians and low-paid immigrant Latinos - an LA version of "The Help" - well, you won't find it here .

Tobar doesn't tell us anything new, he's not even trying. What he DOES do is reminds us of what we already know in a highly entertaining, if a tad bit lengthy, Orange County adventure. He presents a spectrum of reactions to racism, nationalism, justice and immigration, then silently steps back and asks... so, where do you stand?

I rather enjoyed it.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews767 followers
September 21, 2013
The upscale, LA gated community of the Torres-Thompson household has a breathtaking view of the ocean, and a lush tropical or semi-tropical garden maintained by Pepe the underpaid Mexicano gardener. Ironically, the elevation and climate of this suburban McMansion is really desert, so when the Torres-Thomspon household is forced to lay off Pepe due to personal financial problems, and Guadalupe, their underpaid Mexicana nanny, Scott Torres and Maureen Thomson are helpless with their tropical or semi-tropical garden, and it begins to curl up, dry out, and die.

The nanny duties without extra pay now fall on the housekeeper and cook, Araceli, their remaining employee, an undocumented Mexicana who was once an art student in Mexico City until economic problems forced her to seek solace in the US. The three offspring of the Torres-Thompsons are, in Maureen's opinion, the real homegrown exotic orchids that need to be nurtured and nourished with expensive toys, outstanding birthday parties, and private schools, as well as a limit to the gaming devices coveted by Scott Torres, a once big-time game software developer now working in a managerial capacity and watching his funds slip from his ever loosening grasp.

Maureen is a housewife in charge of their two inquisitive sons and a toddler, with a wallet full of overextended credit cards that she intends to use to ecologically balance her garden and fill it with ginormous cacti and succulents. Maureen defends this intervention (by a professional service) after her dying tropical or semi-tropical garden was ridiculed at her son's birthday party. She decides to correct that by planting "natural" flora, at an obscene $10,000.

There are many contrasts and literary allusions immediately felt by the reader that express dramatic and comedic irony, and a deep well of extended metaphors in this novel of identity, class, home, politics, greed, media agenda, ethnic bigotry, and hypocrisy in Southern California.

On the first page, Scott Torres, who Maureen once called "King of the 21st Century," is attempting to master the lawnmower that Pepe handled with such facility. This is analogous to Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, attempting to subjugate and leash a dachshund. McCoy's life as "Master of the Universe" has yet to be destroyed, but his inability to easily conquer a dog foreshadows with terrific nuance. In Tobar's story, Torres is already financially defeated as the novel opens, and his delayed triumph over the lawnmower is superbly demonstrated, especially as Araceli is secretly watching his bumbling attempts with grim satisfaction.

In just a few well-drawn sentences, native Guatemalan Tobar has hooked the reader with character definition and dimension. His repeated, sardonic use of "Torres-Thompson household" alone is sufficient to subtly inform the reader of the irony of contrasts and conspicuous class conceit. They are the textbook prosperous family--earnestly politically correct, yet as protective as monarchs, trying to straddle the fence between their adopted idealism of cultural "equality" and their actual lifestyles. The ambitious scope of this novel--to take the reader further and further into a culturally Hispanic LA in order to accent the Torres-Thompson duplicity, spotlight the city's phony pietism and sanctimony, and render redemption, is where it fails.

What happened? Tobar's authorial intrusion came on strong and early; his inconsistent style often drifted to telegraphing and expository writing, doing the thinking for the reader. Nuance was eclipsed by affected and heavy-handed manipulation, so that it stalled out by the middle of the book.

Despite Tobar's own native culture, which I expected to aid in providing the reader with an authentic reading experience, I was distanced early on. He lacked the vernacular and idiomatic honesty of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He gave us an "invasive species" metaphor, like Diaz's mongoose, to play with, he gave us a dissembling family, and then he stole that novel away from us and started intruding with stereotypes and telecasts. There is a gritty, epic story in here, but Tobar invaded his narrative with forced entry, and trumpeted his themes too obtrusively. A few more drafts and adept authorial removal could restore this story to its opening brilliance.
Profile Image for Elaine.
785 reviews363 followers
May 4, 2017
I was excited to read this book, as I started it during a weeklong trip to LA, and found it in a local bookstore. Finding this book fit in with the feeling I was having that LA was no less a foreign land than London where I'd been 2 weeks prior. Indeed, I have a sense of London's geography, social makeup and customs that I just don't have for LA's - partly because I've visited LA much more rarely, and partly because of books. I read reams upon reams of British fiction old and new, but when was the last time I read a book that was vigorously quintessentially Los Angeles? (possibly Shopgirl, upon reflection) So the Barbarian Nurseries, billed on the cover as a sort of Bonfire of the Vanities dissection of LA society and mores, definitely appealed.

Unfortunately, the great premise (not a spoiler as it's on the book jacket)- what ensues when an illegal Mexican nanny is abandoned with her spoiled upper-middle-class charges by the spoiled upper middle class parents of said charges, and ends up taking the kids on an Odyssey through urban LA - is just buried under so much leaden stultifying prose. I ended up skimming most of the last 200 hundred pages, and even that seemed like a chore.

Everything is just so stiff, and even though Tobar goes out of his way to include irony and contrast, every character seems like a caricature. Perhaps more importantly, no one seems real - certainly not real enough for you to care about them in any deep way, although you root for Araceli, the nanny, because who wouldn't?. The treatment of class and racial politics seems utterly heavy handed, but worse, the desire to illustrate those politics makes for some very unrealistic constructions. We are meant to believe that a 12 year old would think that the scenes he had witnessed in underclass LA were actually part of the fantasy novels and history books that he reads (i.e., view homeless people as refugee space creatures). 7 maybe, but 12? No way. Not even the most sheltered private-school-attending pool-and-nanny-having 12 year old thinks Harry Potter is real, and doesn't know what poor people are. That's just one example.

Another: Araceli, the tall strong Mexican nanny with dignitad (I don't speak Spanish, but Tobar sprinkles it in liberally), is a girl from a poor background who went to art school in Mexico City for one year but had to leave because she couldn't afford it, so she became an illegal domestic in LA and draws tributes to Frida Kahlo on the walls of her servants' quarters. As the epitome of a political point or comment about the inequities of the North American labor market, that character sketch works very well. But as an actual heroine of a novel, it falls flat. We never learn how Araceli got to art school in the first place: what was it about her highly traditional and gendered upbringing (which we hear a lot about) or Mexico City poor-suburban past that propelled her that far and then made her quit? It's an idea that doesn't quite work. Similarly, the white DA as cartoon "I'll get you" villain cum beach bum is easy to see as a political point, less easy to understand real world motivations for this "surfer dude".

Ah well, at least I finished!
Profile Image for Cher.
801 reviews275 followers
March 26, 2016
2.5 stars - It was alright, an average book.

At its core, this is a satirical analysis of the all too common misunderstandings and misconceptions that occur between different demographics. It is filled with characters that share with you their inner thoughts, and these hosts serve up plenty of racism, classism and sexism.

While I applaud the author's brazen ability to tackle controversial issues head on without sugar coating the more virulent and shameful behaviors of one man to another, the novel subsequently often had a bitter, toxic feel. I found myself sometimes not wanting to pick it back up because it fouls your mood.

While I appreciate the author's skill in evoking emotion from his reader, as a consequence in this case, it detracted from the enjoyability of the novel. The novel also progresses very slowly, and when you reach what you expect to be the climax with a quick wrap-up to follow, you realize you actually still have about a 1/3 of the novel to go -- a very slow, drawn out third.

Favorite Quote: She who laughs alone is remembering her sins.

First Sentence: 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.
Profile Image for Annie.
28 reviews5 followers
February 28, 2012
The complexity and the humor, that’s what I liked.
Each individual’s motivations, history, family, temperament were a fascinating interplay within the context of California/US immigration law and reality, racism, materialism and human striving.
Did the end surprise you too?
I had overwhelming feeling of dread in middle and had to go on hiatus for a few days. I couldn’t bear to read about Araceli crushed.
But she wasn’t crushed! Far from it, yet her freedom is only as long lived as the next Miga stop.
Do you think she’ll marry her naturalized US boyfriend, the Gordo?
And I disliked Maureen so intensely, yet in the end, I felt compassion for her limitations and the realization of her history of trauma that caused her to seek safety.
There was a lot of foreshadowing in the novel that was not realized, like the skin heads at the rally. And the media/popular fascination with helicopter/cop chases as Araceli runs under the power lines.
At the end I’m left with a feeling for a kind of decency that we all contribute to in small/large ways that allows for some elements of justice in Araceli’s predicament.
And that without those decencies, the powers that enforce racism and fear usually run amok.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
November 5, 2011
Is it a river or a big ditch?

I loved this book. Tobar creates an accurate account of how people from different walks of life interact in Los Angeles and Orange County. I’ve lived here for over 30 years and his insights were startling but at the same time felt like home truths. Araceli Ramirez is an educated woman from Mexico City. She’s also in the States illegally and the only job she’s been able to get is as a housekeeper to an outwardly prosperous Irvine couple with two young boys, ages 9 and 11, and an infant daughter. With the downward trend in the economy this affluent couple let their gardener and nanny go leaving Araceli ‘the last Mexican standing’. Araceli is now not just overworked but lonely in an alien household. There’s worse to come though. The couple have an argument that turns physical and Maureen, the wife, takes her daughter and escapes to a spa without telling anyone. Her husband Scott feels ashamed of pushing his wife. He can’t face her or his family or the maid who witnessed his outburst so he also stays away from home for a few days. Araceli’s alone with her two precocious charges and after two days of abandonment and no word from either of the boy’s parents she sets off to find their paternal grandfather Juan Torres. Their odyssey begins. The eldest boy who’s read lot’s of science fiction and adventure stories sees their train and bus rides as an extension of these tales. Here Tobar slips in some South American magical realism which is delightful. To the boy the homeless living near the train tracks are refugees from mythic wars with their scars, torn clothing and tents with hearth fires. There’s even a cement ditch that’s said to be the Los Angeles river! Truth and fiction entwine in a funny/sad way. Then things turn serious.

Did Araceli, the evil alien, kidnap the boys or rescue them? This plays out on the news and morphs into a standoff between Hispanics and Anglos. Tobar shows the best and the worst of Los Angeles and all her people and he does it with wonderful precision and without vilifying any group. He highlights what’s good and bad in the different cultures against the backdrop of an economy that’s not kind to anyone. Particularly interesting to me was how each person defines their Americaness. Third generation Mexican Americans see their place in our culture differently than first generation immigrants. Then there are the Anglo’s living in or near integrated neighborhoods. In such places the kids begin to embrace one another’s cultures often flipping the importance of Anglo tradition in favor of Hispanic heritage. The white kids immerse themselves in the dominant Hispanic culture they’re living in. Sadly some of their parents react to this by becoming staunchly racist. They’re afraid of losing themselves and whatever power they perceive they have or had. I know this all sounds ponderously serious and it is but Tobar also makes it fun as well revelatory. He has the details of place, time and culture(s) wickedly precise.
Profile Image for Ellis.
1,210 reviews136 followers
October 12, 2011
Oh, this book made me so, so angry. I kept having to put it down & walk around a bit while deep breathing before I could continue. I'm glad I stuck with it, since it didn't turn out as bad for Araceli as I thought it would, and I am in love with an ambiguous ending any day of the week. But Maureen. Maureen. Come on now. You decide to take your baby on a getaway after your husband knocks you into the table, so you leave your sons with the nanny, Araceli (admittedly, she did think the husband was going to be there, too), and you don't take your cell phone so you can be reachable - like say, when you husband takes off as well & leaves the nanny alone with your kids. You stay away four days without making the slightest effort to find out how your children are doing, and when you return to find the kids missing you lie to the police & try to pin kidnapping on the nanny. While I understand her motivation & why she did it, I still can't fathom doing it myself and it smacks of crap parenting to me. Plus, her asking her husband if it was okay to spend thousands of dollars on a new garden while he's playing video games & clearly not paying attention drove me insane, too. He's not listening to you & you know that! Of course he's going to be angry when he gets the credit card bill! And why can't you just go out there & water the garden you already have?

I wouldn't recommend this to anyone while My Hollywood is still out there, because it does such a better job looking at the bizarre dynamic between parents and their nannies. There's too many odd tangents here about people in L.A. that are encountered by Araceli & the boys as they wander around, or who are inflammed by the "kidnapping" case when it gets blown way, way out of proportion. I am assuming that this novel's intent is to make us focus on the weird way illegal immigrants are ingrained in our society, but it just made me focus on what idiots some people's parents are, and the way that people pay too much attention to the stuff they have in their houses, or their landscaping, as though these are the things that make them good people, not whether or not they skip out for four days & leave their kids with the nanny! I'm still a little infuriated by the whole thing. The worst part is that in an act of attrition for their idiocy, Maureen & her husband (whose name is Scott and who is such a flat, tangential character he barely even rates a name) decide to move to a smaller house, which led me to scream at the pages, "What about the stupid $$$$ new garden you just put in that caused all these problems in the first place?!"
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Louisa.
377 reviews5 followers
June 4, 2012
The major feat of Tobar's epic, sprawling, hot-mess of a novel is its ability to capture, I think, what it means to be from Southern California--in all the myriad ways that can mean now.

I don't think I can recall a contemporary novelist who is as humane or as forgiving of some of his seemingly very unforgivable characters. There really is so much to hate here and yet just as one feels one's self getting suitably outraged on behalf of the good guy or gal that same guy or gal does something remarkably stupid, selfish and yes, hate-worthy. The same things holds true for the "bad guys," the bigots, the real Californians. Yes, they are sometimes horrible people but they are also loving mothers and middle-aged prosecutors who duck out early from work to catch the late afternoon break of glassy perfect waves.

For three quarters of the book, I felt myself nodding and smiling and cringing all at once. And I felt horribly and miserably homesick. And the pacing of the book leading up to Araceli's arrest is just masterful. Admittedly, the last quarter was slower going. There's a lot of court and a lot of reporters and a lot of an attempt to make sense of what it all should mean, to organize, to demarcate. At first, I was annoyed that Tobar seemed to be trying too hard to create some overarching lesson where early in the book there wasn't one. And then somewhere during the last thirty pages, you realize that that is exactly Tobar's point.

That is what to be Southern Californian means now--that constant attempt at self-labeling, that desire to remain separate, each in our own spaces (whether those spaces be cars or barrios or gated communities)--has made us what we are. We are incapable of understanding each other from within the boxes we have made. And as Tobar effectively enacts during the novel's final denouement the only way out is to let the chaos of bodies (literally crossing borders over and over again)finally reign.
Profile Image for JS Found.
134 reviews8 followers
March 14, 2013
This novel by a Latino novelist and reporter won the California Book Award for Fiction. It was named a best book of the year by the august New York Times Book Review, by the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, according to the book's back cover. It is a provocative look at the illegal immigrant experience in California, where, as in most of the U.S., there is a need for domestics and low-wage workers. It covers race, class, politics, poverty, and an ethnography of the city of Los Angeles. And it is a conniption-inducing failure.

I don't know what the basis of this book was. I have the uncomfortable and terrible desire to wish it was based on a true story--only that would explain the string of idiotic characters and contrivances that no actual human being would make. You are familiar with this type of story. If you saw Babel. If you've read the novels of Andre Dubus III or Tom Wolfe. Or if you know Hegelian tragedy. Whatever literary and classical influences, this is tired, well-worn ground. And whatever the tradition, it is still very, very stupid.

If you don't want to know anything about the plot, stop reading now. I don't like to know anything about the books I read before reading them, so that I can have a fresh, unbiased and uninfluenced mind, but, as I reached the central story, the great prose and the fresh--to this reader--immigrant's tale gave way to frustration and anger. Because the book had lots of potential. It started of in the realist mode and went quietly satirical, melding Don Delillo with Balzac; a panoramic view of an Orange County suburban family and their help that visited each character's mind while providing ironic but observant details of their family, home, and lives. It seemed to be about general malaise and how dreams were eroded into disillusionment. There was sharp criticism of middle to upper class white American families and how strange American customs looked to foreigners. There was finally a look at the life of the foreign maid and how she did everything in the house but was not seen, was taken for granted, and gradually and without a rise in emolument given more and more responsibility.

So everything was going along nicely, anchored by the very detailed, specific but beautifully written prose. And then the main story hit and everything collapsed. So that you can judge for yourselves, I break my own rule of telling plot spoilers. Here is the fatal-for-this-book story: the erstwhile wealthy couple have to get rid of their Mexican gardener and also their Mexican nanny. So everything falls on the Mexican maid. The wife is embarrassed by the poor state of the garden, and racks up the credit card overhauling it. This leads to a big fight btwn husband and wife, and both, the next day, without knowledge of the other, decide to abandon their kids to the maid, without telling her, in order go off to relieve some stress. This turns into four days. Each thinks the other has the kids and is at home, not realizing that the maid is alone with them and the food is running out. She tries calling but the cell phones are dead. Seeing a picture of the kids' grandfather, and an address on the back where he might live, she takes them into L.A to drop them off and end this chore of taking care of them. When she can't find him and gets lost with the kids in a city she's never been in before, she stays over a day and night at some nice strangers' homes, not once thinking that the parents might be a tad worried when they get home and their kids are missing, and, oh, yeah, she didn't write a note. (But it has already been established that she is an educated young woman and has an imaginative inner life as she is a budding artist.)

The parents, not knowing what's going on, call the police, and of course, in stories like these, it becomes a media virus and snowballs, and pretty soon the maid is arrested by an anti-immigrant DA and put on trial, with the predictable cleaving of a city and state, as she becomes a bellwether of immigrant rights or nationalist anti-immigrant rage.

And we get the usual fervor and slice of society. Look at the politicians, media and lawyers using her for their own ends. Look at the common people, the rabble that are heavily and easily influenced by media, conservative or liberal. This has all been done before. But it's done and the situation is propagated and exacerbated by stupid people who are in a slightly more serious and less droll version of a Three's-Company-misunderstanding-plot. Whatever observations about race and class and the immigrant experience in America Tobar has is undermined by the incredulous nature of the story. You skip right by what Tobar wants to be the meat of the book--those observations--because you're repeatedly thinking, "Why can't a person here act like an adult?" and "Of course the situation will get compounded by people who merely need to talk to each other and behave like rational human beings." In short, this story is totally contrived to elicit blood lust and anger when no such emotions would exist if the characters didn't behave sensibly. It's cheap. It's the Walking Dead's stupid plots and people transplanted to SoCal and about a real, important, timely, subject. Here is cross-ethnic alliance at the stupidity of the characters. Those who hate pampered, privileged, upper class whites who think everything can be solved with money will have their biases stroked, and those racists who think that Mexicans are dumb and irresponsible will nod their heads at the stupid maid and have their ideas confirmed.

This a well-written bad novel. Shame because the subject could have used some real examination, some examination rooted in the real word and not a well-worn plot device only found in the movies. I don't know how Tobar conceived of his story. Did he come up with character first or situation or theme? If the latter, that can lead to a bad book. The characters have to be the rock everything else stand on--prose, structure, plot, themes. If they are not or if the plot or theme is the first thing the author thinks of and writes the characters to fit them, then they can contradict themselves and make stupid decisions to get where the writer really wants to go. Nothing wrong with writing about a hot-button issue; that's what art is supposed to do. But the characters and the situation have to be believable enough to get there--get the story-- organically and credibly. Otherwise, the book falls apart.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,772 reviews332 followers
August 6, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Felice.
250 reviews82 followers
January 2, 2012
I have to compare The Barbarian Nurseries to The Help. Both novels are about the inequities between the moneyed and their domestic servants and shine a light on the plight of those the majority opts to keep voiceless in society. And. I'll be honest I am not a big fan of the novel The Help.

We all know the story that The Help tells correct? Ok then moving on to The Barbarian Nurseries by HéctorTobar. In this contemporary novel the Torres-Thompson family of Los Angeles and their illegal Mexican housekeeper, Araceli become the center of a media storm. Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson and their three young children are currently on a downwardly mobile, downsizing spree after comfortable affluence. They have excised the gardener and the nanny and now only have their housekeeper as their badge of success.

When the troubles in their marriage accelerate into an argument that sends Maureen through a glass coffee table she flees with the baby. In the meantime Scott needs his break and he goes off to make himself feel better with another woman. Neither Maureen nor Scott has bothered to tell Araceli that she is now alone and in charge of the two young boys.

Having no instructions from their parents and indeed not knowing where Maureen and Scott are and when they will be back, Araceli decides to bring the boys to their Grandfather’s home in a different part of L.A. This is no simple over the river and through the woods trip to Grandfather’s house. Araceli has only a vague idea of how to get where she feels compelled to bring the boys for their own wellbeing. Their journey is a trip through a reality that verses the economically and socially cloistered lives of the status seeking Torres-Thompsons.

Tobar takes this framework and escalates the plot twists into an all too believable frenzy. The parents and the missing maid with children in tow are the stuff that media circuses feed off of. Tobar spares no character, no social concern, no popular theory his inventive, warts and all scrutiny in this mesmerizing novel.

So? The Help and The Barbarian Nurseries? They both have an important message to impart about the shamefully real circumstances of oppressed people in a free, wealthy nation and are written by talented storytellers. However The Help is ultimately a feel good victory of the morally worthy underdog story whereas The Barbarian Nurseries is a more honest and therefore more scathing novel that doesn’t allow the reader the safety of either distance or deniability. A+.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
152 reviews41 followers
May 16, 2013
The Barbarian Nurseries is a huge book. Not in pages, but in conflicts and themes. Aricela, the Mexican illegal and her employers, the Torres-Thompson's are symbols of the great divide.
Hector Tobar plants these characters in a McMansion in arid, sun drenched California. The economy has changed and Scott Torres' investments have dried up in much the same way as the tropical garden in the back yard has. Scott Torres struggles with the lawn, his children, his wife, and his mortgage.
In an effort to save money and face, Maureen Thompson hires workers to replace the dying, high maintenance garden with a desert garden using 1,000's of dollars of cactii because they require little or no care and nutrition. As a stay at home mother of 3 children, she spends her time decorating, entertainiing and doing art projects. She is educated, but unskilled in maintaining or nurturing her garden, her husband or her children.
Aricela is hired to clean the house and cook. She has dropped out of art college in Mexico and has had the crumbling Torres-Thompson family and U.S.'s conflict with immigration foisted upon her.
The American dream, the streets paved with gold, justice for all, art, education, activities of daily life, The Catcher in the Rye. It's all here and all questioned.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,169 reviews1,645 followers
August 15, 2011
Imagine a Tom Wolfe – or perhaps a T.C. Boyle or Don DeLillo – novel without some of the more tempered nuances. The Barbarian Nurseries is a social novel, focusing largely on the schisms between the wealthy and the immigrant population in Southern California and it’s good – at times, really good – before dissolving into a disappointing ending.

Scott Torres is a programmer, a Mexican American with the emphasis on the American, who has fulfilled the American dream: he lives with his lovely blond wife Maureen Thompson-, his two sensitive and precocious young sons Brandon and Keenan and his baby daughter Samantha in wealthy gated L.A. community he can ill-afford. The Spanish-style house – Paseo Linda Bonita, a redundancy – is an immediate clue that this is not a community that is primed to understand those who toil in its households.

After falling on hard times, he dismisses all the servants go with one exception: Araceli, his illegal Mexican maid. One night, Scott and Maureen get into a particularly vicious fight about Maureen’s plan to replace the “petite forest” tropical garden with a very pricey desert landscape. Each separately decides to take a little break from home, leaving the two boys with Araceli. Unwilling and ill-equipped to handle her two charges, Araceli takes off on an ill-advised adventure to downtown Los Angeles, where she hopes to deposit the boys with their grandfather. When the parents return home four days later (each thinking the other is already there) they reach the absurd conclusion that Araceli has absconded with their sons and the result is the predictable media circus.

Hector Tobar is at heart, a journalist, and his writing reflects his careful journalist’s eye for detail. That is both the good news and the bad news. On one hand, we – as readers – receive full details on each scene, straight to the freshly dusted living rooms, tautly made beds, and photographs form places south with KODAK imprinted anachronistically on the back. On the other hand, all the work is done for us: Tobar tells us what we are viewing and how we should relate to it, not empowering us to come to our own conclusions.

Yet, for about three-quarters on the book, I was swept away with the contrasting worlds, the isolation of those who live affluent lifestyles in gated communities versus those who exist in a “shadow world”. Araceli is portrayed as the strange one, the Mexicana they couldn’t comprehend, but it would fall to her to bring the Torres-Thompson household by restoring the broken routines…” There are truths that Tobar reveals, such as when Arceli divulges the cost of the boys’ private school to her aspirational friends, which “strips them of some of their own moderately elevated sense of accomplishment by revealing just how small their achievements were relative to true American success and affluence.”

The two distinct camps – those who live in gleaming white homes in a neighborhood most often described with the adjectives “exclusive, “ “hillside,” and “gated,” – and those who they know only in the most superficial manner, are very well portrayed.

Where Tobar falls is in the last quarter of the novel, where the novel becomes obvious and heavy-handed. At one point, when Maureen meets the aggressive prosecutor, she reflects, “This man is telling me what to feel as much as he’s telling me what to think.” I felt the same way about the author. The camps were too finely drawn – the rich and irresponsible parents, the befuddled but blameless Mexican maid. The book becomes more pedestrian and predictable, losing some of its magic.

My conclusion: this is a good book that could easily have been a great book. Tobar does capture the complexity of one of our most unique cities – as well as the biases and assumptions that may end up toppling us. For that alone, the book is well worth the read.

Profile Image for Sarah.
362 reviews36 followers
April 22, 2015
Principally a book of Observations, more or less True I guess but largely Banal and in a great number of instances irrelevant to the story. I can't accept this is (as it describes itself) the great sweeping contemporary novel of LA - surely, SURELY, there is more to life there than this. The whole point seems to be to measure the misunderstandings and unbridgeable differences between the demographic groups - mainly the American start-up rich living in soulless and heartless affluence and their Mexican staff, and the Mexicana roams around LA meeting various others in this solar system which gives rise to a series of long vignettes and more Observations, but to what end? The last third is the best in fact - still a lot of pointless detail but the story gets some shape and a bit of tension... and then gets too tidy. The messages are not subtle or particularly thoughtful.

I was a little amused (until I was not) by how thoroughly useless the American start-up couple were - smug and superior but utterly self-absorbed and completely unaware, raising spoiled, timid and entitled children, who may turn out all right but that's in spite of their parents... but I have a suspicion that they are meant to be regular folk with normal flaws, and that I am supposed to be more sympathetic. All of the immigrants come off a little better.

And is there a copyright fee to pay for mentioning Lego? 'Small Danish locking bricks'? And several more references like this, including detailed descriptions of children's books, without mentioning the titles... though I guess they paid the Eyewitness fee because that gets an early namecheck. And you don't need to be a 'science geek' to recognise that a dry sink means that no one has washed any dishes for a couple of hours. Also birds of prey don't have teeth.

Hairstyles are nicely described, I'll give him that, and a couple of lines made me laugh.
Profile Image for Amy.
841 reviews20 followers
April 12, 2015
Dickens writes about East L.A. and the richest parts of Orange County.

Here’s the storyline: Scott and Maureen did well enough in the dot-com world that they could afford three employees to take care of their children and mansion. But things are starting to fray. The gardener and nanny are let go. A fight about money goes too far. The next morning, each parent decides to take a time out for a day or two. Each one thinks the other one is home with their two boys.

But only Araceli, the cook, is with the boys. Their mother left her cell phone behind. Their father forgot his phone’s charger. For various reasons, Araceli can’t contact neighbors, friends, or the police. As food in the house runs out, she tries to locate the boys’ estranged grandfather, and the adventure begins.

Araceli is a great character. A former art student in Mexico City, she shows the reader beauty in the most decayed parts of Los Angeles and ugliness in an extravagant birthday party Scott and Maureen throw for their son. Araceli is proud, sort of like the concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She is a smart person who sometimes shows bad judgment, like all the major characters in the book, and (of course) that’s how the story moves along.

Two really enjoyable “characters” were Los Angeles itself, and Mexican culture and politics. The scenes in Huntington Park brought these out the best.

This is social commentary, and it isn’t subtle. For example, Maureen gets almost no redeeming qualities. I was reminded of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Recommended for when you’re in the mood to get fired up about injustice.
Profile Image for Anna.
167 reviews26 followers
September 16, 2011
How disappointing, this book has a very interesting premise - what happens when two parents independently decide to leave at the same time and don't tell each other and on their return home their children are missing? It could have been a fascinating thriller. However it is anything but thrilling.

The interesting premise is smothered by bad execution: poor to non-existent characterisation, far too much exposition and a concentration on mundane detail, plus unnecessary use of untranslated Spanish which acts as a barrier to the reader because you have to stop and think to figure out what is being said.

In addition the plot is flawed and entirely unbelievable. Would someone really try to find someone using the address on a 50 year old photo rather than trying an address book or phone book? No. This key flawed plot point is ridiculous.

Despite the interesting premise the conclusion is predicable, inevitable and actually logical considering how ridiculous the rest of the plot is. This book is pointless.

The book is trying far too hard to be a social commentary on the state of communities in California and the impact of Mexican immigration on the psyche of the population. It fails. It would have been better written as a straight thriller.

I just didn't care and I definitely wouldn't have finished it if I had not been committed to writing a review.

In addition, as other reviewers have mentioned, the uncorrected proof is littered with errors on every page, I really hope that at least these problems are fixed in the final published version.
Profile Image for Ruthiella.
1,465 reviews49 followers
May 26, 2018
This is an ambitious book which tries to capture the mercurial make-up of early 21st century Los Angeles and Orange County; the contradictions, the diversity, the frictions of the Southland. That is a pretty big subject, but I think it a lot of ways, Tobar nails it. The book opens with Mexican housekeeper Areceli observing her second generation Mexican-American boss, Scott Torres, try to mow his own lawn. Scott is a former dot.com millionaire whose liquid assets are rapidly depleting due to bad investments and the recession. As a result, he has let go his Mexican nanny and Mexican gardener. His perfectionist wife doesn’t quite perceive the financial straits they are in and their inability to communicate leads to a situation which allows Tobar to showcase some of the best and the worst about Southern California; its uneasy economic dependence on cheap labor and its foundational racism.

I have encounters a few reviews and blurbs that make comparisons between The Barbarian Nurseries to Tom Wolfe and in particular to Bonfire of the Vanities, which kind of make sense, but Tobar is not the same kind of writer. Bonfire of the Vanities is clear satire and while it is scathing, it also has a lot of humor in it. Tobar doesn’t have that light, slightly exaggerated touch; he is much more earnest and occasionally allows his characters to speechify which can be awkward. Only a few characters come close to parody, such as the surf-obsessed, politically motivated ADA Goller.
Profile Image for Kkraemer.
743 reviews21 followers
October 20, 2011
For the first time in awhile, I had to fight myself to do anything but read this book. An Orange County family, with a dad who works hard and a mom who is trying to be the best mom she can possibly be, has an incident that results in their two sons being left with the housekeeper/cook for 4 days. She panics and tries to take them to their grandfather, but doesn't realize that he no longer lives at the address she has. The parents panic (where did she take them? why? will she smuggle them to Mexico?), the maid searches for someone to take care of the boys (how could the parents leave them? how can there be no family? how can people be so isolated?), and things spiral out of control (Illegal Alien Kidnaps American Children).
Tobar's writing is razor-sharp: he shows how people think and how they make sense of this world. One boy, seeing a homeless encampment, is sure that it's a village from one of his science fiction books. Another character sees an ant invasion as evidence of her incompetence. A woman takes 4th of July celebrations as proof that her country has been rent asunder.
I found myself caught between wanting to read this book as fast as I could (to find out what happened) and wanting to read slowly (to savor the insights, the great lines).
A great book about class, ethnicity, borders, politics, families, and life in these United States.
Profile Image for Cassandra..
406 reviews22 followers
August 9, 2012
Two statements came to mind as I was reading this book:

1. If we could see ourselves as others see us.
2. Perception is reality.

Each character in this book was living thru the same set of events and perceiving it in his/her own way - according to life-experiences, preconceived ideas, culture, political agendas, etc.

The parallel lives of the monetarily successful husband and wife and their illegal alien "help" was fascinating, frustrating and often a bit too stereo-typical. The political bias of the author made me crazy at times, but for the most part, I think Mr. Tobar gave me a lot to think about.

I was raised by a Mexican "nanny"; I assume she was "legal". It was not an issue in the late 40's-mid 60's. My mother worked and had social obligations. My Mama Lita was the light of my life. She was part of my family (even when she was no longer "employed" by my parents) until the day she died, so it was/is difficult for me to comprehend the depiction of the interaction, or lack thereof, between the "patrons" and their live-in help.

I would recommend this book to anyone who lives in the southwest. The author's name is Hector TOBAR - not Tovar. I cannot figure out how to change it.
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,923 reviews731 followers
December 22, 2015
I really didn't read this book, nor am I going to. Purging the shelves. If anyone in the US wants this book, I know I'm never going to read it, so it needs a new home. Brand new, signed copy, never read. I'll pay postage to whoever wants to adopt this book.
Profile Image for Geraldine.
28 reviews7 followers
August 5, 2022
This book really gets across many points , including how messed up the family she works for is I enjoy how the author expresses himself
Profile Image for Louise.
1,548 reviews80 followers
October 25, 2012
Story Description:

HarperCollins Publishers Ltd|September 20, 2011|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-1-44340-709-0

Scott Torres is a thirty-something Mexican American with a beautiful, blonde wife, Maureen; a mansion outside L.A.; and a staff of servants to tend his lawn, clean house and care for the three Torres children. As the novel opens, all the servants have been let go save for Araceli, their maid. Scott has fallen on hard times after a failed investment, and to make ends meet he has been forced to cut costs, even if it means he has to wrestle with this lawnmower just to get it started. With the recent addition of a newborn into their family, tension escalates, and the couple soon part ways – Maureen to a spa with the baby; Scott to a female co-worker’s house. Both think the other is caring for the children.

Araceli, who has never raised children before, spends more time daydreaming about her former life as a Mexico City artist than caring for the Torres’ kids. When she starts to run out of food, she spirits the youngsters off on an absurd adventure through Los Angeles in search of their Mexican American grandfather. When the parents finally return home they panic, thinking Araceli has kidnapped the children. Soon a national media circus explodes over the “abduction.”

The Barbarian Nurseries is a lush, highly populated social novel in the vein of Tom Wolfe tempered with a bit of T.C. Boyle that explores dashed dreams through a city divided.

My Review:

Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn’t start, no matter how hard he pulled the cord it just wouldn’t start. Araceli, his Mexican maid was watching him through the kitchen window and knew she should tell him the secret that made the mower roar to life. All he had to do was turn a knob on the side of the engine which made the mower start as easy as “pulling a lose thread from a sweater.” Scott had recently let Pepe the gardener go and felt Scott’s struggle with the mower fitting punishment for doing so. Pepe had been gone two weeks and Araceli missed him and knew she’d never see him again.

Araceli enjoyed working for the Torres-Thompson household and thought working for them as a self-imposed exile from her previous directionless life in Mexico City. However, neither of her bosses informed Araceli beforehand of the momentous news that she would be the last Mexican working in the house. Maureen, the wife, never called herself “Mrs. Torres”, though she and el senor Scott were indeed married. Araceli lived in their home 12 days out of every 14, but was often kept in the dark about what was going on in the family, for example; Maureen’s pregnancy with their 3rd child, which Araceli only found out about because of Maureen’s repeated vomiting. The couple had two boys: Keenan, 8; Brandon, 11; and one daughter, Samantha, 15 months.

Maureen Thompson was a petite woman, elegant and thirty-eight-years-of-age. She and Scott had been married for twelve years. Scott was a write of computer programs. They had lived in their current home for 5 years.

Now that Scott and Maureen had fired all the other staff, Araceli suddenly found herself being plopped with a baby in her arms. This was never Araceli’s job – ever! Guadalupe had been the children’s nanny and this sudden new role did not sit well with her. The truth was Araceli had never been close to children; they were a mystery she had no desire to solve, especially the boys, with their screams of battle and electric sound effects they produced with lips and cheeks. Scott had indicated they were going broke and couldn’t afford to keep all the staff so Araceli didn’t have much choice.

Maureen and Scott had a horrendous fight over their severely depleted financial situation and Maureen had just spent 3 figures for a new back garden they didn’t need nor could afford. That same day, Scott had taken his loyal employees out for lunch and when the bill came his credit card was declined leaving his employees to divvy up the cheque between them. Scott was furious with Maureen and as the argument became more heated, he lost all control and pushed Maureen backward where she promptly fell on the large glass-topped coffee table smashing it to smithereens. That evening they both slept in different areas of the house.

The following morning, Maureen decided to take baby Samantha away with her for a few days leaving Scott to juggle work and the boys with Araceli’s help. She packed up, loaded the baby into the car seat and left. Unbeknownst to her, Scott had a similar idea. He too took off leaving the boys and Samantha behind for Maureen to care for, or so he thought. When Araceli arose and began making breakfast, she didn’t notice anything amiss until only Brandon and Keenan showed up at the breakfast table. After searching the house she realized that Maureen, Scott and the baby were gone. After 2 days of trying to contact both parents and running out of food, Araceli didn’t know what to do. She finally decides to take the boys their Grampa John’s house whom they hadn’t seen in two years. The boys were excited beyond measure. Araceli locates his address, gets the boys to pack their suitcase with wheels and they set out for the bus stop. Araceli is just not equipped nor prepared to care for two little boys long term. However, little does she know her actions will be perceived as kidnapping and thereby starting a frenzied media circus like you’ve never seen.

The Barbarian Nurseries was a fairly good read although I found it to be quite mundane and too drawn out in parts.
Profile Image for John.
497 reviews3 followers
December 31, 2018
so 2018; even though written in 2011,
Two America's living in each other's shadow
Profile Image for Judy.
1,677 reviews280 followers
December 21, 2011

I read this wonderful novel simply because the author lives in Los Angeles. Hector Tobar, son of Guatemalan parents who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s, is an LA Times columnist. The Barbarian Nurseries is his third book; his second novel. He has created a unique hybrid: a factual portrayal of a city and its immigration woes couched in fiction and driven by characters who surprised me at every turn.

Araceli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant working for an affluent family inside a gated community in Orange County. Scott Torres made his money in the days of the dot com boom but now holds down an uninspiring IT job while trying to maintain the standard of living he overspent to attain. In an effort to economize, he and his wife have laid off their full-time gardener and nanny, leaving Araceli to pick up dropped hats in addition to her job as maid. She cooks and cleans, is paid in cash, lives in a tiny guest house and has one day off every two weeks. Now she is expected to also help with the three children.

Back in Mexico City, Araceli had studied art in college while she dreamed of el norte. She has not a motherly bone in her body. When Scott and his wife both vanish after a violent argument, Araceli is left with the two older children, with no news of or contact from the parents, and not much food in the house.

So begins a journey to and through Los Angeles using public transportation, a picture of the boys' grandfather and what turns out to be a long outdated address. Naturally various types of hell break loose.

I have lived in LA for twenty years but Hector Tobar and Araceli took me to places I have never been; pockets of neighborhoods populated by all levels of Hispanic society from the homeless to educated politicians. We have a Mexican gardener who mows and blows once every other week. We eat Mexican food in restaurants regularly. And that is all I know except for when immigration issues get enough press to penetrate my virtually complete neglect of the news media.

At first I was put off by Hector Tobar' writing style. I have read enough novels by former journalists to be wary. But this author uses his reportorial chops to create places, occurrences, and characters, making it all so real that you feel you are there yourself. He lets us into his characters' minds and souls by chronicling their thoughts and then describing their actions. By the end of what became a more gripping story page by page, I was in a fever of anticipation to learn how it would all turn out. I never could guess or predict the fate of Araceli or the family she ultimately saved until the last few pages.

Did I mention the kids? The eleven-year-old son who reads like crazy and processes his experiences in LA by relating them to all the fantasy novels he devours? The homeless boy taken in by a single mom and made to serve her and her children to the point that the OC kids think he is a slave? Tobar knows kids.

As any avid reader of fiction has found, many and various are the high points, disappointments, and sometimes slogging boredom involved. The Barbarian Nurseries is a shining high point. Except for Native Americans, every American citizen is ultimately a descendent of an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants built on the backs, the labor, and the hopes of other immigrants. Despite the hardships, the ridiculous prejudices, the exploitation, the immigrant story may be the most romantic story our country has to tell. Hector Tobar certainly made it so.

If you only get through a novel a month, or less, I highly recommend you squander some reading time on this one.
Profile Image for Joje.
257 reviews2 followers
May 29, 2012
Truly, this book started out as dry and sometimes clipped, mostly, as in TC Boyle, and not just in Tortilla Curtain, and threatened the same sort of hopelessly mechanical drive to injustice, mostly for the heroine. Sometimes I was also surprised by the quick switches in point of view, although I could define the reasoning for most of them, but not always. I did not find myself getting lost in them, at least, but I'm an old hand at that. It is hard, however, for an author to do it and not lose track or introduce inconsistencies, so hat's off there.

Also on the ''critical'' side, I noticed some hints of a future development that not only did not pan out in quite the way implied (so were misleading of a prediction: e.g., a giggle that Araceli would later remember as the sound of her defeat) and some clues that any contemporary thriller and cop drama reader/watcher would notice: why get receipts at the spa but not the phone records, especially Maureen's that held all the proof needed. I don't consider these spoilers, by the way, but details that remained details not clues, yet one expects them to.

But once we left the isolated home of the Torres-Thompsons, the main characters blossom and add a dimension to the book that I enjoyed a lot: Brandon learns about the wider world (some of it) and so does Araceli. Seeing LA from their points of view was a kick, even if I know it has changed a lot from my day (more homeless). All that's changed from my Orange County experiences is that there's more of the same, especially the gated communities on the ocean. Wasn't new in the 70s any more than the Mexicans were. Just more of both, apparently.

Now for some fun bits to draw you into what makes this book very different from any Boyle book I know.
--The train had brought them to this place called Los Angeles, where the magical and the real, the world of fantasy books and history, seemed to coexist on the same extended state of streets, rivers, and railroad tracks.
(This had already been demonstrated first as he traveled, so is a summary, but it comes up again in a couple of other contexts that deepen the book into humor more than satire, which this sort of technique is good at.)
--Some secret force drew people to this place. How else to explain all the comings and goings of travelers, warriors, and traders, and then his own arrival with his brother and Araceli on their long trek from the Laguna Rancho estates?
--Why is it, he wondered later, that stories begin to turn old the first time you tell them? Why won't a story allow itself to be told over and over? (Brandon's thought, now back to the dialogue:)
“I think L.A. Sounds cooler than Europe,” Max pronounced once Brandon had finished.
“I guess,” Brandon said. “I really wanna go to Greece, though, And Rome, too.”
--(Now Araceli) Out here, in the world away from the paradise of the Laguna Rancho Estates, there was the silver skin of taco trucks on Thirty-ninth Street and the fat tortillas...imagined a composition with orange and red explosions of fireworks in the background, and in the foreground the rabid teeth of a mob that marched and shouted. And why not the horizontal march of the electric transmission towers...”

It surprised me by this turn, which led to a very different denouement than I'd expected and a much deeper book, too.
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