Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries, which is the California Book Club’s December selection, is a social novel that focuses on Araceli, a Mexican woman working as a live-in maid in a gated community in Orange County. The novel also examines her American employers, married couple Maureen Thompson and Scott Torres. Tobar devotes the first third or so of the book to setting the stage for the drama that occurs later. Readers are introduced to the main characters’ inner lives, their socioeconomic and racial realities within a Southern California setting, and, most potent of all, the tensions between them.
Although the book opens on Scott Torres, the novel quickly makes it clear that Araceli is the character readers are meant to care most about. In this way, The Barbarian Nurseries overturns the conventional suburban social novel. Many of the social novels written after World War II and set in the suburbs focus on white middle- and upper-middle-class people and their travails. But the labor that built the mass-produced suburbs and provided the creature comforts middle-class Americans came to expect was largely ignored in these novels, invisible to the characters and, perhaps, the authors. Not so in Tobar’s novel, where Maureen and Scott’s wealth is evident not only to Araceli herself, but also to their similarly suburban friends: “None of the mothers invited to the [Torres-Thompson’s son’s] party had a full-time, live-in maid, and to them Araceli’s subservient Latin American presence provoked feeling of envy and inadequacy.”
Is Araceli subservient? Certainly, she is a servant, in that her job is to cook and to clean for the Torres-Thompson family. Her work, which eventually includes taking charge of the Torres-Thompson children, is highly visible throughout the novel. And if subservient is to mean subordinate, this is technically true, for Araceli is an employee and Maureen and Scott are her employers and thus hold power over her. However, subservient as the mothers regard Araceli has a racist and classist tone, followed as it is by “Latin American presence,” which implies that Araceli is less a person to them than a status symbol they covet as upper-middle-class women who cannot hire (or have not yet hired) their own live-in maids.
Yet however she is regarded by her employers and their friends, the narrative itself never presents Araceli as subservient. She thinks of the Torres-Thompson’s kitchen as “her office, her command center,” and thus makes it her domain. She often scrutinizes her bosses, sometimes judging them. Maureen and Scott, for their part, fail to consider her very much at all, even though her work has become indispensable to them, so much so that they keep her on even when their financial security deteriorates and they fire other staff, such as Guadalupe, the nanny. Maureen, especially, relies on Araceli; after an argument with her husband, lying in bed alone, frustrated, exhausted, she reminds herself that in the morning she and Scott will once again “see the abundance of blessings in their lives,” yet she can’t help but think of the mess accumulated in the house. But, she knows, “Araceli would take care of it all in the morning.”
As the first chapters unfold, readers witness the story turning repeatedly away from the book’s Southern California setting and toward Araceli’s own background, context, associations, and spaces. In the second chapter, for instance, Araceli thinks, ironically perhaps, “that if you had transplanted [Maureen] to Oaxaca she would have made very fine pottery, or papel picado, or been an excellent stage manager for a theater group wandering through the suburbs of El Distrito Federal.” Araceli, who dislikes California, recontextualizes her boss by transplanting Maureen to Mexico in her imagination. Moments later, Maureen hands her infant daughter to Araceli, who has not agreed to begin fulfilling Guadalupe’s former duties but who realizes that “some of this responsibility would fall to [her],” even though she “wasn’t sure if she was ready or willing to help take care of a baby.” But when Araceli holds the baby, the narrative again allows us access to her cultural context as she ruminates on how the child “led the life any Mexican mother would want for her baby, with an astonishing variety of pinks and purples in her wardrobe of onesies, bibs, T-shirts, nightshirts.”
Araceli also knows that the Torres-Thompson children are getting a kind of childhood she herself never had. She calls the boys’ bedroom El Cuarto de las Mil Maravillas, “the Room of a Thousand Wonders,” filled as it is with toys and books. Entering that room to clean in the morning is “the only time in her workday Araceli [feels] self-pity and resentment at the absences and inequalities that [are] the core injustice of her existence.”
The book allows Maureen and Scott their own internal landscapes as well and avoids turning them into cartoonish oversimplifications. It is precisely their own humanity, the ways in which they can feel deeply about certain things—like their children, their home, their finances, the distance between how they grew up and their current abundance—that makes their blithe unawareness, lack of consideration, and privileged outlook so sharp in contrast. But it is Araceli—her loneliness, her straightforward nature, her art-making, and her imagination—to whom the book pays closest attention, and therefore she captures readers’ attention, too.•
Join us on December 16 at 5 p.m. when Tobar will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. And visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss your early thoughts about The Barbarian Nurseries with your fellow California Book Club members.