Originally published Monday, October 10, 2011 at 5:00 AM

Book review

'The Barbarian Nurseries' is a must-read

Book review: Los Angeles Times columnist Héctor Tobar's novel "The Barbarian Nurseries" is a dark, poignant and hilarious tale of a family maid in Southern California who tries to hold things together as a marriage falls apart. Tobar will read Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Héctor Tobar

The author of "The Barbarian Nurseries" will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600;
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'The Barbarian Nurseries'

by Héctor Tobar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $27

As Héctor Tobar's second novel opens, the "surly but dependable" Mexican maid Araceli Ramirez watches one of her bosses, Scott Torres-Thompson, struggle to start the lawn mower. Once a millionaire programmer, his bad investments, business problems and other expenses have caused hard times.

He and his wife, Maureen, have fired their nanny and gardener, and face the unfamiliar condition of having to economize.

Araceli considers telling Scott about the little knob that makes the engine start. But no, she decides. He deserves punishment. Nor will she take him a cold drink, as she would have to Pepe, "a da Vinci of gardeners," the only one who knew how to keep the backyard rain forest alive here in Orange County's upscale Laguna Rancho Estates.

Tobar, a Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist at The Los Angeles Times, is the author of "Translation Nation," a book documenting how Latinos are changing the United States, and "The Tattooed Soldier," a novel of revenge among Los Angeles' illegal immigrants and homeless. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he was assigned to cover the city's poor central neighborhoods as a young reporter. His background has provided intimate familiarity with Southern California's cultures and classes. And, as his poignant opening cameo shows, he sees all sides.

After Scott massacres the lawn, Maureen decides the withering rain forest must go. There's little dialogue in Tobar's novel, but what there is is often priceless. She contrives to ask Scott's permission for this radical makeover while he's engrossed in a computer game. It'll cost a lot, she admits. "Uh-huh," he says. It'll be desert plants, she explains. "Cool." I'll just charge it, then, she murmurs. But Scott's too distracted to hear. He won't learn how exorbitant the landscaping bill is until his credit card is declined at a company lunch.

The ensuing argument at home causes Scott to push Maureen, who falls and breaks a glass table, a reverse glass ceiling of sorts that propels the novel into dark, often hilarious territory.

The next morning, Maureen takes the baby and departs for a desert spa. Not realizing she left, Scott seeks solace elsewhere with a woman employee. Neither — as usual — explains to Araceli.

It's summer vacation. Araceli lets the boys read or play, feeds them lunch, then begins to wonder where la señora is. Time passes. El señor Scott doesn't return from work. Worried, Araceli phones several numbers on Maureen's emergency list, but reaches only confusing voice mails. She decides to deliver the kids to their grandfather. Thinking the address on an ancient photo will suffice, she sets off on foot, switching to bus and train, into "a distant land called Los Angeles." And although they're strangers in a strange land, people feed and shelter them.

Meanwhile, misunderstandings escalate at home. Were the boys kidnapped? Tobar takes his tale into the convoluted territory of the justice system, another wasteland. Who's guilty? his narrative asks. The entitled? Those on whom they depend? Like Tom Wolfe's classic "Bonfire of the Vanities," a big city comes under minute scrutiny. Los Angeles seems to be, Tobar's title suggests, a nursery for barbarians. That Tobar is so evenhanded, so compassionate, so downright smart, should place his new novel on everyone's must-read list.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner writes and lives in New Mexico.

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