Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How Did the Book Club Go?: The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar.

The Barbarian Nurseries was released in the fall of 2011. It's one of those novels that I hoped to read on its release (it was one of the picks of Anne, our sales rep) but alas, other things (mostly event books) got in the way.

The story focuses on a couple, Scott Torres, his spouse Maureen Thompson, and their children, Brendan and Keenan Torres-Thompson. Due to a good run at a dot com that Scott co-founded, they are living in a large house near Riverside, California, and in their employ is a maid, nanny, and gardener.

But not any more. Scott's let two of their workers go, leaving Araceli to go it alone. She's not a gardener, however, and not much of a nanny either, leaving Scott to the yardwork. Alas, Scott can't handle their jungle garden, and that gives Maureen the great idea to replace it with an enormously expensive desert garden (that supposedly will save money on maintenance), which she charges to their credit card.

As the marriage splinters, Araceli is left to watch from the sidelines. She's not born to be a maid, despite her collection of Filipinas (her newest is pale yellow) which are only worn by the finest servants in Mexico City. No, she's a dropout art student who spends her time pondering Pepe the gardener's muscles and creating magazine collages in her quarters.

And then the sh*t hits the fan, and a series of miscommunications has the police on a manhunt for Araceli.

I call this kind of book a rollercoaster novel, as a good part, maybe the first third, is a setup for the action that follows. Some of the folks in the book club felt that it dragged as a result, but other thought this was necessary to develop character sympathies. But one of the issues of the plot-driven second part of the novel is that too many folks describing the book give away a lot of the twists of the book. I'm trying to avoid that.

In a lot of ways, this is a variation on the several nanny novels I've read before. In particular, I was reminded of Mona Simpson's My Hollywood, another SoCal novel about a floundering well off couple and their observant nanny.  And I'm not trying to stereotype, but the difference is that Simpson's novel continues with a quieter, character-driven tone, while Tobar's plot has an antic quality that I see more often with male novelists.

That said, we all agreed that Tobar didn't quite veer into satire here. The novel is warmer than you expect, reminding me a bit of Nathan McCall's Them, though it's certainly working in the Tom Wolfe style. Note the UK jacket is a little more stylized.

Several of the attendees had read T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, probably his novel that backlists best, and thought that Tobar was a sweetheart to his characters in comparison.

Tobar has released one nonfiction book, Translation Nation, and one previous novel, The Tattooed Soldier.

Since the release of The Barbaran Nurseries, I've become more aware of Tobar's book reviewing. He can be a pretty tough critic, which is unusual for a novelist. It seems like a lot of them are afraid to say anything that isn't positive, for fear of getting bad reviews later in backlash. On a more positive spin, I think there are a lot more folks out there like Gary Shteyngart, the king of the blurbs, who feels like it's always better to say something positive (and sadly, admits to not always finishing the books in this documentary).

Here's his take on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Flight Behavior. But he was a big fan of This is How You Lose Her and The Yellow Birds

But Tobar's reviews from newspapers at least, have been mostly glowing, and I would say that the response from the book group was also quite positive. One critic questioned some decisions of Maureen, wondering if Tobar had to break character in order to keep the wheels of the plot turning.

Upcoming discussions:

Monday, February 4, 7 pm: Leon and Louise, by Alex Capus.

Monday, March 4, 7 pm: A Partial History of Lost Causes, by Jennifer DuBois.

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