The Barbarian Nurseries


BarbarianNurseriesby Hector Tobar
2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 422 pages, $27

An Armenian-American investor from Glendale is a bit character with a pivotal role in this grand novel focusing on immigration and class relations in Southern California, so Tobar’s book goes on my virtual Glendale Bookshelf!

The Barbarian Nurseries is also the One Book One Glendale selection for 2013, and this Thursday, March 14, the Glendale Central Library will host author and LA Times columnist Hector Tobar to discuss his book with his counterpart, author and OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano.

While Sasha “the big man” Avakian only shows up in the beginning of The Barbarian Nurseries, it is his rude but accurate observation at a party that sets the story’s chain of events in motion. He also is the only guest Tobar shows appreciating the undocumented housekeeper’s good cooking as well as her inscrutable nature. Araceli Ramirez is a real person to him, while to so many others in this grand tale covering the events of a few summer weeks she is just a symbol or a servant.

Araceli’s employers are a supposedly well-off Orange County couple with brewing financial troubles. Much of the novel’s action is located in Orange County, in fact, with the villain district attorney a native of Fullerton (!). Fullerton is also the locus of Giovanni Lozano, another bit character who is “a twenty-six-year-old Chicano Studies maven and perpetual Cal State Fullerton undergrad [and] the most active and most read poster on the La Bloga Latina page.”

This book took awhile to read, and the author uses multiple points of view to explore various players’ thoughts and motivations. Tobar contrasts the materialistic lifestyles and the expectations of upper-middle-class parenthood with the hand-to-mouth existence and blocked aspirations of day laborers and undocumented housekeepers who make leisure possible for well-off families.

The thorough exploration of so many characters’ attitudes is matched by evocative descriptions of landscapes from the suburbs of Laguna Niguel to decrepit residential blocks south of downtown Los Angeles to industrial-adjacent neighborhoods of Huntington Park.

I’m looking forward to hearing Tobar and Arellano talk about the conflicts in the book, its impact, and their impressions of Orange County and Los Angeles.