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The Barbarian Nurseries

A Novel

Héctor Tobar


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Fall '12 Reading Group List

“Tobar has written an incredibly timely novel about a Southern California family and their live-in maid in the throes of an economic downturn and a troubled marriage. Araceli is the last of the hired help in the Torres-Thompson house, who is now charged with all of the housework as well as minding the children. Following a disturbing chain of events, Araceli is left alone with the two boys, and after unsuccessfully exhausting the emergency contact list, she heads off in search of the boys' grandfather. Their journey and the end result is an incredibly observant and perfectly written story of our country's difficult situation with undocumented workers. Highly recommended!”
— Sherri Gallentine, Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, CA
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Winner of the California Book Award for Fiction
A Los Angeles Times Bestseller

Best Book of the Year Lists
The New York Times Book ReviewLos Angeles Times
San Francisco ChronicleThe Boston Globe

Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson have always relied on others to run their Orange County home. But when bad investments crater their bank account, it all comes down to Araceli: their somewhat prickly Mexican maid. One night, an argument between the couple turns physical, and a misunderstanding leaves the children in Araceli's care. Their parents unreachable, she takes them to central Los Angeles in the hopes of finding Scott's estranged Mexican father---an earnest quest that soon becomes a colossal misadventure, with consequences that ripple through every strata of the sprawling city. Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries is a masterful tale of contemporary Los Angeles, a novel as alive as the city itself.

Praise For The Barbarian Nurseries: A Novel

“A book of extraordinary scope and extraordinary power.” —Los Angeles Times

“Tobar exhibits a seismographic sensitivity to the tensions along the fault lines of his cultural terrain....His illuminations become our recognitions.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Both timely and timeless...Tobar continually creates moments of uncommon magic.” —Elle

“Tobar looks at Los Angeles like Tom Wolfe took on New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Race, class, crime, immigration, marriage trouble, and tabloid-ready news stories--it's all here.” —New York Post

“Each moment surprises....Darkly hilarious and moving.” —The Washington Post

“That Tobar is so evenhanded, so compassionate, so downright smart, should place The Barbarian Nurseries on everyone's must-read list.” —The Seattle Times

Picador, 9781250013798, 432pp.

Publication Date: September 4, 2012

About the Author

Héctor Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestseller, Deep Down Dark, as well as The Barbarian Nurseries, Translation Nation, and The Tattooed Soldier. Héctor is also a contributing writer for the New York Times opinion pages and an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. He's written for The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, L.A. Noir, Zyzzyva, and Slate. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he is a native of Los Angeles, where he lives with his family.

Conversation Starters from

What were your initial impressions of the Torres-Thompson family and Araceli? How did your

understanding of them change throughout the novel?

Maureen and Scott, along with their friends, consider themselves to be progressive. How would

they need to change if they were to bring about true progress in their community? Are the newly

rich of this century very different from wealthy entrepreneurs from other generations?

Do Araceli and the other servants in the neighborhood have any leverage, or are they entirely

powerless with their employers?

Discuss Los Angeles as if it were a character in the novel. What personalities and history are

captured in the neighborhoods Araceli travels to, with and without Brandon and Keenan? How do

the extremes of rich and poor affect the city as a whole? Do Brandon and Keenan see the world

the same way as other characters in the novel, even though neither one of them has traveled far

before (except through fiction)?

In Maureen’s and Scott’s minds, what does good parenting look like? How is this different from

Araceli’s parenting standards? How does Brandon and Keenan’s childhood compare to their parents’ childhood?

Does Maureen treat her baby daughter, Samantha, differently from her sons? What does it mean

for her to have a little girl in a household of males? When Maureen and Scott have power struggles, does gender come into play?

In the scenes depicting Araceli’s time off, what is most striking to you about her true self and her

lost dreams of being an artist with a college education?

What would America look like—economically, socially, and otherwise—if Janet Bryson had her

way? Were you surprised when the author revealed how much Araceli earns per week ($250 cash,

on top of room and board), as well as Pepe’s annual salary range (in the four figures)?

At every turn, Tobar finds a place for humor while keeping the story line tremendously realistic.

What makes satire the best way to understand the issues of class and immigration raised in the

novel? How did it affect your reading to know that the author is a Los Angeles native whose parents emigrated from Guatemala?

Discuss the translation and language issues that arise in The Barbarian Nurseries, including the moments when non-native speakers try to use Spanish. Is Araceli in some ways protected by the

fact that her english is limited?

Ultimately, whose fault is it that the Torres-Thompson children were briefly without parents?

Could something similar have happened in your household? If so, would you have been grateful

to Araceli or suspicious of her?

Why is Scott so different from his father? How has Grandfather Torres evolved since the time

the photograph was taken?

The title is referenced in chapter eight, when Maureen looks at the landscapers and thinks to herself, “What am I doing, allowing these sweaty barbarians into my home?” In chapter ten, Araceli

uses the expression qué barbaridad when she thinks about Maureen’s not telling her where she’s

gone. Who are the barbarians in this novel? What is being nurtured in the “nurseries”?

In the closing scenes, many of the characters experience newfound freedom. What did they have

to sacrifice in order to gain that freedom? How did their definition of freedom change?

How would you have answered Felipe’s question in the novel’s final lines?