Sunday, February 5, 2012

Héctor Tobar writes a novel diagnosing the ills of LA

This novel sounded almost too good to be true when I read about it. But it turns out to be almost as good as the hype suggests.

The Barbarian Nurseries

Héctor Tobar’s amazing The Barbarian Nurseries (432 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) is set in Orange County, and for the first half of the novel, we hardly leave the stately and beautifully decorated McMansion of Scott Torres and his wife Maureen Thompson. The Torres-Thompsons have three children: Brandon 11, Keenan 8, and Samantha, a toddler. They also have a live-in housekeeper called Araceli.

When the novel opens, we understand that there is trouble in paradise. There used to be a lively nanny and a competent gardener who were part of the household, but we quickly learn that Scott’s income has dropped—he was a software pioneer who did well early on, but once his business was bought out and he became an employee in his own firm, the money just wasn’t the same—and he and Maureen are having trouble maintaining their standard of living. The two boys are in expensive private schools, and as their bedroom, groaning with possessions, demonstrates, they have been lavished with books, and puzzles, and toys of all kinds, primarily educational.

As Scott tries to retrench, Maureen doesn’t quite get it at first, and in efforts to save money, she spends even more; and this leads to increasing conflict until it seems that the marriage is doomed and the couple will hurt each other before it ends.

Witness to all this is Araceli, an educated immigrant from Mexico City who has for four years been holding this household together. Her energy and her attention to detail are amazing. On the two days every two weeks that she has “off,” the family practically collapses. Araceli is also witness to the escalating violence of words between Scott and Maureen, and she is almost not surprised when it turns so bad that a coffee table is shattered and the couple in tears.

Imagine her shock the next morning, though, when both adults and the baby are simply gone. She has no prior experience that could have prepared her for this. If she was ever left alone with the children, there were elaborate schedules and lists. And this time there is nothing. It turns out that the parents absconded separately, each needing to “get away” and each assuming that the other was there to pick up the pieces.

Brandon and Keenan are wonderful kids, but after a couple of days without their parents, they start to get crazy, and Araceli is beside herself. There might be many things she could have done, but what she actually does is to take this kids on a bus and train and bus again, into the depths of Los Angeles, in hopes of finding the boys' grandfather.

What she finds, instead of the grandfather, aside from a fascinating trip for the boys, is a lot of trouble for herself. The second half of the novel follows the fallout, and Araceli is accused of kidnapping and child endangerment, and the parents gradually come to confront their own culpability in this terrible mix-up.

As the novel proceeds, Araceli finds herself deep in the corridors of the American justice system as Scott and Maureen try to put their broken life back together. All ends for the best, but Tobar has taken us through so many different LAs that we might not be sure where we are.

The novel is well-written and gripping at times. Tobar may be a little heavy-handed with the “moral of the story,” but once he has written a novel with this much insight and depth, he probably has earned the right to tell us what it means.

Héctor Tobar

The Barbarian Nurseries is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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