Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011, 422 pages
The great panoramic social novel that Los Angeles deserves—a 21st-century, West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities by the only writer qualified to capture the city in all its glory and complexity.
With The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar gives our most misunderstood metropolis its great contemporary novel, taking us beyond the glimmer of Hollywood and deeper than camera-ready crime stories to reveal Southern California life as it really is, across its vast, sunshiny sprawl of classes, languages, dreams, and ambitions.
Araceli is the live-in maid in the Torres-Thompson household—one of three Mexican employees in a Spanish-style house with lovely views of the Pacific. She has been responsible strictly for the cooking and cleaning, but the recession has hit, and suddenly Araceli is the last Mexican standing—unless you count Scott Torres, though you’d never suspect he was half Mexican but for his last name and an old family photo with central LA in the background. The financial pressure is causing the kind of fights that even Araceli knows the children shouldn’t hear, and then one morning, after a particularly dramatic fight, Araceli wakes to an empty house—except for the two Torres-Thompson boys, little aliens she’s never had to interact with before. Their parents are unreachable, and the only family member she knows of is Señor Torres, the subject of that old family photo. So she does the only thing she can think of and heads to the bus stop to seek out their grandfather. It will be an adventure, she tells the boys. If she only knew.
With a precise eye for the telling detail and an unerring way with character, soaring brilliantly and seamlessly among a panorama of viewpoints, Tobar calls on all of his experience—as a novelist, a father, a journalist, a son of Guatemalan immigrants, and a native Angeleno—to deliver a novel as broad, as essential, as alive as the city itself.
Okay, bear with me here. How is this book about a Mexican housekeeper stuck with two over-privileged brats in modern Los Angeles like Jane Eyre?
Araceli Ramirez is sensible, stern, hard-working, intelligent, and unpretty, and thanks to her circumstances of life, relegated to drudgery that is beneath her abilities for people who are generally undeserving of her talents. But that said, her personality is nothing like moralistic old Jane, and there are no St. John Rivers and Mr. Rochesters vying for her.
The reason I am comparing The Barbarian Nurseries to a 19th century classic is that like Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc., Héctor Tobar is a social commentator novelist who, by telling a story about characters in a particular time and place caught in contrived situations, he tells us everything about their milieu. He makes us want to read about it by telling a good story with vibrant and detailed characters.
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 offending her progressive sensibilities. Maureen is the very model of a nice 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.
It's easy to sneer at them and their privileged, oblivious, materialistic natterings, but Scott and Maureen aren't unsympathetic people, though it's easier to feel pity than sympathy for them. Scott is completely emasculated by his wife, who (with some justification) treats him like a grown-up version of their two boys. 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 for plot convenience. But once they get underway, it's a journey almost as interesting as the fantastic adventure the bookish young Torres-Thompson boys make of it, 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.
Have you read The Barbarian Nurseries?
Verdict: The Barbarian Nurseries is a novel of modern culture and racial friction in Los Angeles. Almost but not quite satirical, not quite humorous enough for me to truly love it, it's still quite a magnificent work, a novel that deserves to be a modern classic, and definitely a recommended read.
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