In the changing economy of the 21st century, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson's dot-com fortune is rapidly disappearing, forcing them to fire most of their illegal-immigrant Mexican domestic help and to rely solely on Araceli, their live-in cook and housekeeper. After a heated argument, Scott and Maureen each decide to leave home for a few days "to teach him (her) a lesson." Neither told the other nor bothered to inform Araceli. Left alone with two young boys, no money, and no transportation, the maid is at a loss for what to do. Fearing for the fate of the children, she must find a way to protect the boys without risking her own deportation.
Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries is an intense novel about the great divides in modern American culture. The presumption of privilege and superiority of the Torres-Thompsons is contrasted with the daily routine of the quiet, hardworking Araceli Ramirez. Scott and Maureen see the world as something they can mold to their desires, exemplified by the tropical rain forest they've created on their patch of the Los Angeles coastal desert. Araceli, on the other hand, tries to adapt herself to the world as it is, taking advantage of every small opportunity to improve herself and her life.
The Barbarian Nurseries begins from a single point—the Torres-Thompson household—and soon splits into three story lines. Scott, Maureen, and Araceli each have a distinct perspective and a different grasp of reality. Their decisions and actions after the fateful argument are the result of their individual upbringings and what they've come to expect out of life. Through this trio of voices, Tobar weaves a tale that is part character study and part social commentary, building a microcosm that is utterly believable.
No matter your own circumstances, the truths that The Barbarian Nurseries exposes about life in America will leave you feeling just a little bit uncomfortable. Whether you empathize with Scott and Maureen, who return home to an empty house, or with Araceli, who is unexpectedly left in charge of the children, you'll be thinking of the parents and the housekeeper for weeks to come.
An excellent book club choice, The Barbarian Nurseries will have readers talking about the immigration system; cultural differences in parenthood, values, religion, and ethics; the economy; the legal system; the conservative media; and how we treat those who work for us and with us. As you finish the last sentence, you may also be asking yourself, Who is freer and richer in the long run?
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Blackstone Audio; 15 hr, 58 min) read by Frankie J. Alvarez. Alvarez's accents, intonations, and pacing were well matched to the novel. My full audio review will appear on the AudioFile magazine website.
The Barbarian Nurseries is a New York Times Notable Book for 2011. To learn more about Héctor Toban, visit his website.
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