For the past four years, Araceli Ramirez worked for the Thompson-Torres family as a live-in maid. Located high in the California suburbs with a view of the Pacific, the huge house that she keeps sparkling clean has been a constant source of curiosity for her – especially the expansive library of books, electronic toys, and spaciousness of the bedrooms of the two oldest children – a place that she calls “The Room of a Thousand Wonders.”
Araceli dreams, fantasizes, and desires a different kind of life, but after fleeing from Mexico City, the home of these Americans with their guest quarters, which she occupies alone, seems a place for her to gather these reveries and work toward a reality she wants, one of autonomy.
When Scott Torres lets their full time nanny and groundskeeper go because of a soft economy, the quality fabric that had been the Torres's life begins to tear and snarl, and Araceli finds herself caught in its unraveling: first, with more responsibilities, ones of which she, with her limited English, navigates poorly and second, with a domestic situation that sets off a chain of events whose tenseness becomes palpable.
In Hector Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries, the life of Araceli, the Torreses, and the decisions they both make in the wake of unsettling events underlie this fascinating novel of class and culture.
Tobar's ability to find the voice of all involved, his attention to details that matter, and the taut suspense that permeates the atmosphere of the plot seals his place as a true American novelist.
BTW: After I had read about one half of this novel, I told my friend Laura, “these people worry me.”