Imagine a Tom Wolfe - or perhaps a T.C. Boyle or Don DeLillo - novel without some of the more tempered nuances. The Barbarian Nurseries is a social novel, focusing largely on the schisms between the wealthy and the immigrant population in Southern California and it's good - at times, really good - before dissolving into a disappointing ending.
Scott Torres is a programmer, a Mexican American with the emphasis on the American, who has fulfilled the American dream: he lives with his lovely blond wife Maureen Thompson, his two sensitive and precocious young sons Brandon and Keenan and his baby daughter Samantha in wealthy gated L.A. community he can ill-afford. The Spanish-style house - Paseo Linda Bonita, a redundancy - is an immediate clue that this is not a community that is primed to understand those who toil in its households.
After falling on hard times, he dismisses all the servants with one exception: Araceli, his illegal Mexican maid. One night, Scott and Maureen get into a particularly vicious fight about Maureen's plan to replace the "petite forest" tropical garden with a very pricey desert landscape. Each separately decides to take a little break from home, leaving the two boys with Araceli. Unwilling and ill-equipped to handle her two charges, Araceli takes off on an ill-advised adventure to downtown Los Angeles, where she hopes to deposit the boys with their grandfather. When the parents return home four days later (each thinking the other is already there) they reach the absurd conclusion that Araceli has absconded with their sons and the result is the predictable media circus.
Hector Tobar is at heart, a journalist, and his writing reflects his careful journalist's eye for detail. That is both the good news and the bad news. On one hand, we - as readers - receive full details on each scene, straight to the freshly dusted living rooms, tautly made beds, and photographs from places south with KODAK imprinted anachronistically on the back. On the other hand, all the work is done for us: Tobar tells us what we are viewing and how we should relate to it, not empowering us to come to our own conclusions.
Yet, for about three-quarters on the book, I was swept away with the contrasting worlds, the isolation of those who live affluent lifestyles in gated communities versus those who exist in a "shadow world". Araceli is portrayed as "the strange one, the Mexicana they couldn't comprehend, but it would fall to her to bring the Torres-Thompson household by restoring the broken routines..." There are truths that Tobar reveals: e.g., Arceli divulges the cost of the boys' private school to her aspirational friends, which "strips them of some of their own moderately elevated sense of accomplishment by revealing just how small their achievements were relative to true American success and affluence."
The two distinct camps - those who live in gleaming white homes in a neighborhood most often described with the adjectives "exclusive, " "hillside," and "gated," - and those who they know only in the most superficial manner, are very well portrayed.
Where Tobar falls is in the last quarter of the novel, where the novel becomes obvious and heavy-handed. At one point, when Maureen meets the aggressive prosecutor, she reflects, "This man is telling me what to feel as much as he's telling me what to think." I felt the same way about the author. The camps were too finely drawn - the rich and irresponsible parents, the befuddled but blameless Mexican maid. The book becomes more pedestrian and predictable, losing some of its magic.
My conclusion: this is a good book that could easily have been a great book. Tobar does capture the complexity of one of our most unique cities - as well as the biases and assumptions that may end up toppling us. For that alone, the book is well worth the read.