Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries is a lively novel that possesses the kind of sprawl we often associate with Southern California. It opens in a domestic, suburban environment with the Torres-Thompsons and their maid, Araceli.
The first sentence offers seemingly trivial information about the affluent head of household: “Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn’t start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn’t begin to roar.” And yet, you’ll notice even in the first paragraph an over-the-top playfulness. The lawn mower’s engine sounds like a sick child’s cough, but then, taking comparisons even further afield, the lawn is described, ridiculously, as “precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall.”
Later, Araceli notes, “After observing the Torres-Thompsons for several years she could begin to see their arguments as a kind of marriage fertilizer: they were ugly, one recoiled before their nasty smell, but they appeared to be necessary.” When one of these quarrels turns particularly sour and a little violent, Araceli is left to mind the Torres-Thompson children because each parent, in bloated self-absorption, assumes the other is home with them.
The pinballing thoughts of strikingly divergent characters are brought into the book’s narrative orbit as the plot advances. Tobar brings his acute observational skills, his journalistic tool kit, to his investigation of their behavior and consciousness. The novel escalates in velocity and moves into Los Angeles, all in a mode akin to the hysterical realism for which Zadie Smith became known in White Teeth. Like that novel, Tobar’s novel contends with jostling third-person perceptions of individuals in a multicultural milieu. Nobody is entirely safe from Tobar’s laughter, although his sympathies are clear.
Read an excerpt from The Barbarian Nurseries and give the recently published 10th-anniversary edition a whirl for your long-weekend reading. Enjoy!•
Join us on December 16 at 5 p.m., when Tobar will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to start talking about The Barbarian Nurseries with your fellow California Book Club members.
SPACE, SOUND, PORTRAITURE
John Freeman explores the rich aurality and soundscapes of Tommy Orange’s There There. Its narrative rhythms dramatize its characters’ enmeshed lives and the tension between remembering and forgetting. —Alta
BOOK CLUB RECAP
In case you missed it, please check out our recap of the conversation between author Tommy Orange, guest Kaveh Akbar, and host John Freeman—or catch up by watching the YouTube video in its entirety. —Alta
PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS
Author liz gonzález writes an essay in praise of nopalitos. Although not able to make other produce thrive in her garden, she decides to grow a nopal in her backyard to connect with her Mexican roots. —Air/Light
In How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America, sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh examines four Bay Area families and considers how we might curb Big Food to create a society in which people can afford to eat healthfully. —Six Fifty
Stephanie Land, the author of Maid, the inspiration for the Netflix show of the same name, teamed up with the Missoula bookstore Fact & Fiction to raise money for a group home for moms and their kids. —Montana Right Now
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