An unexpected L.A. story: A review of The Barbarian Nurseries

by Daniel A. Olivas

The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel
Héctor Tobar
422 pages, hardcover: $27.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Los Angeles Times columnist Héctor Tobar's ferocious new novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, deftly and convincingly plunges us into the heated national debate on undocumented immigration.

Araceli Ramirez, a single woman from Mexico City, works as the live-in housekeeper for Maureen Thompson and Scott Torres, upper-middle-class parents of three children in Orange County, Calif. She still daydreams of Mexico City, where she had enjoyed "long walks through the old seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century streets, a city built of ancient lava stone and mirrored glass, a colonial city and an Art Deco city and a Modernist city all at once."

The Thompson-Torres family starts to slide out of balance when Scott, a computer game designer, can no longer earn enough money to maintain their privileged household. Fractures appear in the marriage, and unintended violence results. Maureen leaves home with the baby to ponder her future. But Scott also leaves to cool off in a self-imposed exile. Somehow, they each believe that their sons are safe at home with the other spouse.

A few days pass, and neither Maureen nor Scott returns. And so Araceli believes they have abandoned their sons. Armed with nothing more than an old photograph of Scott's father with a faded Los Angeles address written on its back, she and the boys take to public transit in search of their grandfather.

The resulting disasters unfold in a logical but still surprising manner. Araceli unwittingly becomes tangled in the politically fraught immigration debate when a defensive Scott and Maureen report that their boys have been kidnapped by their undocumented housekeeper.

Tobar brilliantly explores how politicians, prosecutors, bloggers and television personalities on all sides respond to the story, scrambling to become part of it in order to exploit it. He also paints wonderful cameos of the many people Araceli and the two boys encounter on their long journey from the well-manicured lawns of Orange County to the grittier, less affluent neighborhoods of urban Los Angeles.

The author doesn't make it easy for anyone, refusing to tie up his novel's ending in a nice neat bow. There is plenty of nuance, doubt and questioning for all concerned. And perhaps that is where the power of this remarkable book resides. Clear-sighted and compassionate, The Barbarian Nurseries should be required reading for anyone willing to consider the human side of the immigration controversy.

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