The Barbarian Nurseries

Farrar. Oct. 2011. 432p. ISBN 9780374108991. $27.
Author of Translation Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tobar translates his ideas into a first novel. When the recession hits, Araceli, a live-in maid in the Pacific Coast Torres-Thompson household, finds herself responsible for everything when the other two Mexican servants are let go—including the family's two children. Then she wakes up to discover that the parents have vanished. Billed as a panoramic social novel of Los Angeles, this strikes me as a panoramic social novel of America.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tobar (The Tattooed Soldier) presents an original story of modern Southern California. Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson live with their children in upscale Laguna Rancho Estates. Despite Scott's income as a computer game company vice president, bad investments and extravagant spending have forced them to fire their Mexican gardener and nanny. Housekeeper Araceli Ramirez must now do double duty. Though she's a dazzling cook, she's not up for child care, but her undocumented status forces her to accept the situation. Meanwhile, a disconnect is growing between Scott and Maureen. Without communicating to each other or to Araceli, they separately escape the pressures at home, and neither returns for four days. Araceli, alone and worried, has to do something, so she takes off with the two boys to Grandpa John's, with only a vague idea where he lives in central Los Angeles. When Scott and Maureen finally return, they are devastated to learn that their boys are missing with an undocumented Mexican nanny and make a call that changes all their lives forever.
VERDICT Tobar's superb multilayered novel defines the social divide of Southern California, emphasizing in a complex and human way that there are no black-and-white answers in the immigration debate. [See Prepub Alert, 4/11/11.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., CO
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