The Barbarian Nurseries
By Hector Tobar
PBR Book Review:(3.5 stars) This book abounds with smart observations and compassion as Tobar examines the issue of immigration and where legal and illegal immigrants fit into our society. He looks at the complicated and twisted justice system from their perspective and gives some beautiful insight on the wrongful stereotyping of this group. He also totally captures the uniqueness, diversity and biases of Los Angeles, contrasting the life of the privileged with those living in Ghettos. It’s interesting that he chooses to expose some of these inequities by viewing them through the eyes of children, which provokes thought and passion without judgment. This is a book well worth reading but also one that tests the limits of credibility and patience. It’s interesting but not plausible at times; it’s well written but looses momentum in a few places.
Book Club Talking Points: This book spotlights the LA multimillionaires living in gated communities with ocean views and the Hispanic immigrants they hire to take care of their family and property. Tobar gives us many discussion points not only on the issues of how immigrants contribute to our society, but also the justice system, family dynamics, the excesses of the rich, media frenzy and parenting. He presents the material in a sensitive, compassionate manner.
*Author Website: www.hectortobar.com/
*Other Books by Same Author: "Translation Nation","Tattooed Soldier".
1. What were your initial impressions of the Torres-Thompson family and Araceli? How did your understanding of them change throughout the novel?
2. Maureen and Scott, along with their friends, consider themselves to be progressive. How would they need to change if they were to bring about true progress in their community? Are the newly rich of this century very different from wealthy entrepreneurs from other generations?
3. Do Araceli and the other servants in the neighborhood have any leverage, or are they entirely powerless with their employers?
4. Discuss Los Angeles as if it were a character in the novel. What personalities and history are captured in the neighborhoods Araceli travels to, with and without Brandon and Keenan? How do the extremes of rich and poor affect the city as a whole? Do Brandon and Keenan see the world the same way as other characters in the novel, even though neither one of them has traveled far before (except through fiction)?
5. In Maureen’s and Scott’s minds, what does good parenting look like? How is this different from Araceli’s parenting standards? How does Brandon and Keenan’s childhood compare to their parents’ childhood?
6. Does Maureen treat her baby daughter, Samantha, differently from her sons? What does it mean for her to have a little girl in a household of males? When Maureen and Scott have power struggles, does gender come into play?
7. In the scenes depicting Araceli’s time off, what is most striking to you about her true self and her lost dreams of being an artist with a college education?
8. What would America look like—economically, socially, and otherwise—if Janet Bryson had her way? Were you surprised when the author revealed how much Araceli earns per week ($250 cash, on top of room and board), as well as Pepe’s annual salary range (in the four figures)?
9. At every turn, Tobar finds a place for humor while keeping the story line tremendously realistic. What makes satire the best way to understand the issues of class and immigration raised in the novel? How did it affect your reading to know that the author is a Los Angeles native whose parents emigrated from Guatemala?
10. Discuss the translation and language issues that arise in The Barbarian Nurseries, including the moments when non-native speakers try to use Spanish. Is Araceli in some ways protected by the fact that her English is limited?
11. Ultimately, whose fault is it that the Torres-Thompson children were briefly without parents? Could something similar have happened in your household? If so, would you have been grateful to Araceli or suspicious of her?
12. Why is Scott so different from his father? How has Grandfather Torres evolved since the time the photograph was taken?
13. The title is referenced in chapter eight, when Maureen looks at the landscapers and thinks to herself, “What am I doing, allowing these sweaty barbarians into my home?” In chapter ten, Araceli uses the expression qué barbaridad when she thinks about Maureen’s not telling her where she’s gone. Who are the barbarians in this novel? What is being nurtured in the “nurseries”?
14. In the closing scenes, many of the characters experience newfound freedom. What did they have to sacrifice in order to gain that freedom? How did their definition of freedom change?
15. How would you have answered Felipe’s question in the novel’s final lines?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , September 27, 2011- 432 pages-ISBN 0374108994|
New York Times Notable Book for 2011
The great panoramic social novel that Los Angeles deserves—a twenty-first 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 L.A. 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.