The central plot of The Barbarian Nurseries involves the family of Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, who bought their home in an exclusive Orange County gated community when the software company they launched was acquired several years earlier, enabling a new lifestyle maintained with the help of three Spanish-speaking domestic employees. But now the recession has come to their single-income household, and they’ve had to let the gardener and the nanny go, adding to the work of their live-in housekeeper Araceli Ramirez--not that anyone discussed this with her. There’s not much discussion of anything in the Torres-Thompson home, really, but there are increasingly frequent arguments about money; the morning after one of those arguments, Araceli discovers that both Scott and Maureen have left the house--but their sons, 11-year-old Brandon and 8-year-old Kenan, are still at home. Two days and assorted miscommunications later, neither parent has returned, and Araceli is weary; she wasn’t hired to take care of children. The only extended-family member she knows about is Scott’s father, and the only clue she has to his whereabouts is an old photo taken years earlier in East Los Angeles--but Araceli’s people don’t move around much, so she has no reason to think he wouldn’t still be there, and she decides that the best course of action would be to deliver the boys to their grandfather until their parents return. And when the parents do return--separately, as they left--they’re distressed to find that both their sons and their maid are missing.
The Barbarian Nurseries is primarily a plot-driven novel, but much of the plot is underpinned by contemporary themes that have particular resonance in Southern California: socio-economic and class conflict, notably that involving recent Spanish-speaking immigrants, political and media opportunism arising from those conflicts, and exactly how “assimilated Latinos”--long-term or native-born residents who look “white” and whose only daily use of the Spanish language is their own last names--fit into the picture. A less weighty, but equally SoCal, theme concerns keeping up appearances--a lifestyle you really can’t afford, a persona and self-presentation that overrides genuine intimacy and connection.
By shifting perspectives between Maureen, Scott, Araceli, and various secondary characters, Tobar is able to explore a range of attitudes and experiences of modern life in and around Greater Los Angeles, as well as reflections on how it’s changed in recent decades. I found some of the perspectives quite insightful and enlightening. However, a trade-off of presenting such a varied cast of characters can be that development of individuals suffers, and I think that’s an issue here. I couldn’t sustain much sympathy for Scott and Maureen, and I felt that Maureen in particular was more of a “type” than an individual. That said, the novel hinges on Araceli, and I thought she was brought to life with complexity and humanity. I also enjoyed Brandon Torres-Thompson, the 11-year-old. He’s bright, bookish and imaginative, and has been sheltered to the degree that he seems to give fiction and fact equal weight as he encounters the world; I’ve known a few kids like him. (I’ve lived with a kid like him.)
The blurb at the head of the publisher’s page for The Barbarian Nurseries suggests that it is a “a twenty-first century, West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities--Los Angeles’ great panoramic social novel.” Sometimes that catalog copy is effective shorthand for what a book offers and sometimes it’s not, but in this case it’s not far off the mark. I think it could provoke some thoughtful and spirited discussion, particularly among Southern California readers and their book groups.