08 December 2011

Review: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

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.

Published by Macmillan / Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780374108991
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sandy Nawrot 12/8/11, 7:10 AM  

This sounds like a really good, thought-provoking book! I think I would probably end up getting angry, which is a good thing. I'll put it on the book club list!

k 12/8/11, 7:55 AM  

This sounds like a really good read...and I'm rather interested in the whole immigration deal after having lived @ the AZ/Mexico border for 3+ years. Thank you!

Daryl 12/8/11, 8:33 AM  

Aha .. I saw the ad in this weekend's NYT Book Review and wondered what it was about .. I am so glad I know you!

Beth Hoffman 12/8/11, 9:02 AM  

I've never heard of this book before; it sounds upsetting and fascinating.

bermudaonion 12/8/11, 9:06 AM  

I've never heard of this one but, boy, does it sound good to me! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Zibilee 12/8/11, 9:14 AM  

Oh, this is something that I know that I would enjoy and need to check out. It sounds like a really interesting story. If you are looking for something similar with a slightly different bent, I would suggest Minding Ben. It was a really intense look at the relationships between well off women and their nannies. It had a heck of an ending as well!

caite 12/8/11, 9:27 AM  

perhaps the book explains it well enough but the basic idea just sounds a bit implausible to me.
and I am not reading anything before Christmas that will make me mad..lol

Col (Col Reads) 12/8/11, 10:02 AM  

This sounds like a fantastic story -- I love books that look at the intersection of two cultures. Sounds like a must-read.

Barbara 12/8/11, 11:24 AM  

After reading your review, it sounds to me like the children were left with the right person to raise them. Apparently the parents didn't give them a thought. I'm putting this on my list.

carol 12/8/11, 12:07 PM  

Sounds like it would be a great book for discussion.

Cath @ Constance Reader 12/8/11, 1:09 PM  

This sounds like the kind of book that has its finger on the pulse of a lot of current issues. I wonder if, in 10 years, we will look back on it being a defining book of the economic crisis, the 99%/1% divide? What do you think?

Dorte H 12/8/11, 2:33 PM  

Agree with Barbara!

And funny how the behaviour of fictional characters can provoke us :)

Margot 12/8/11, 4:32 PM  

You had me at the firest paragraph on this one. But I like the fact that it has some substance to it and addresses some serious issues in our culture. It's going on the list.

Amy @ My Friend Amy 12/8/11, 5:07 PM  

This sounds fantastic! I will definitely keep it in mind.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 12/8/11, 7:32 PM  

I hadn't heard of this book and it sounds like something I'd enjoy. I keep adding books to that to-read pile. Perhaps my library has it in audio.

Anonymous,  12/9/11, 12:25 AM  

I am defiantly intrigued by this one - thanks for sharing!

Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

Unknown 12/29/11, 2:42 PM  

This one sounds perfect for when you're in the mood for a thought provoking book.

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