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Navigating the other L.A. of affluent culture that's going toes-up

"L.A. scares the crap out of me," said Harry Potter franchise star Emma Watson in the August 2011 Harper's Bazaar.

"If I have to work out four hours a day, and count the calories of everything I put in my mouth, and have Botox at 22, and obsess about how I look the whole time, I will go mad. I will absolutely lose it." The scary L.A. is real, but there is also another Los Angeles beyond the celebrity-youth-attractiveness-obsessed one.

That other L.A. is a bellwether for the nation, thanks to economics and changing demographics -- and illegal immigration. Angelenos are reminded daily that the United States has a problem that has yet to be fully acknowledged, much less addressed.

This novel is an ambitious swing-for-the-fences by L.A. Times reporter and columnist Hector Tobar, centered around the axis of immigration and all its radiating, spiraling tangles through geography, economics, politics, popular culture and media.

Tobar's parents were Guatemalan immigrants, and he is a native Angeleno who has written for the L.A. Times since the late 1980s, including a stint as Mexico City bureau chief.

"The Barbarian Nurseries," in stylistic homage to Charles Dickens, Tom Wolfe and T.C. Boyle, paints a rich Panavision place and time as sprawling and paradoxical as its subject. However, it's a PG-rated vision of this multifarious world. There's a key act of mild violence, and the occasional f-bomb, and as for carnality, only sweet yearnings.

Nevertheless, the relative modesty and decency seem authentic and appropriate, and are perhaps a subtle political statement -- this is not a world to fear.

The plot is simple. In a gated suburban oceanside development, like a residential Club Med designed to spare guests from actual contact with the world outside, an undocumented Mexican housekeeper who is not especially fond of children wakes up one morning to find her employers gone and her left with their two sons, in third and fifth grade, and no note, no instructions, nada.

Araceli -- in her mid-20s, tall, "big boned," reserved, an art student forced to leave her Mexico City college because of money and eventually driven to make the perilous crossing to El Norte -- has to do something. That something is to find the boys' paternal grandfather, who she thinks, based on a 40-year-old photograph in the living room, lives in central L.A. So she and the boys lock up, walk to the bus stop outside the development's entrance, and begin an odyssey that culminates in Araceli being arrested and charged with child abuse and becoming an international cause celebre and political football.

As the novel begins, Araceli works for Scott and Maureen Torres -- their surname part of the rich ironies of this world -- an upper-middle-class couple riding the waves of the tech boom but finally getting beached. The crash of 2008 devastated their investment-dependent income and they find themselves living an unsustainable life including a nanny and a housekeeper and a gardener; private school for their boys (they also have an infant daughter); and a showplace house with a tropical garden in the semidesert climate requiring serious attention and unnatural amounts of water.

They decide to "let go" of the nanny and the gardener, without bothering to tell their stern but hardworking housekeeper, and to also, without asking or increasing her pay, add the nanny's job to hers.

The Torreses are in their 30s, a California native and a transplant, appropriately progressive and guilty over the right things, but oblivious to the reality of their own lives and the lives of those, such as Araceli, that they presume to understand. A chance disparaging quotation from Shakespeare about the garden going to seed after the gardener's departure, uttered by a drunk guest during a birthday party, becomes the perturbation that sends Araceli on her harrowing but eventually redemptive journey.

Maureen Torres contracts for a devastatingly expensive landscaping job and new garden (running this past Scott while he's distracted by a video game), believing money saved in the long term will make it worthwhile. However, this maxes out the Torreses' fragile credit. Bubbling tensions erupt and Scott snaps in a manner so uncharacteristic that Maureen decides to leave, at least for a few days, taking their daughter.

Humiliated and angry and repentant, Scott also decides to get out. Each Torres bolts believing the other still at home.

Araceli and the boys' journey is the central third of the book, which is divided into three tellingly metaphorical parts: "The Succulent Garden," "Fourth of July," and "Circus Californianus."

In good Aristotelian fashion, the novel has rising action in the first part, climax and catastrophe in the second, and resolution played out in the third. The first two intricate parts lay a deep foundation for the long glide of the consequences of the Torreses' disappearance and return and their decision to lie about what happened, as the family and Araceli are swallowed by social services and criminal justice systems, 2 4/7 media and identity politics.

After an epic rumble through a wide swath of L.A., things slow to a conclusion: the Torreses move to a smaller house, and Araceli finds love and heads into the future, which is, "para alla": "That way."

But, Mexico or America? Quien sabe? Tobar lets us figure that out.

A nitpicker can find nits. Defiantly anti-modern in its magisterial, omniscient point of view, the book admirably limns the lives of an impressively myriad cast of characters, across age, gender, class, profession and ethnicity. However, the internal voice Tobar uses to depict their thoughts is identical for all, including Araceli, and that strikes an inauthentic note. On occasion, Tobar's journalistic chops push the narrative into Tom Wolfe territory, reporting and explaining rather than following the novelist's imperative: to show.

These and other nits, however, can be overlooked. Tobar has crafted an illuminating parable for this historical moment, and an entertaining one, and provided a social mirror within which are faces we need to understand, and face.

Ed Taylor is a freelance local writer and critic.


The Barbarian Nurseries

By Hector Tobar

Farrar Strauss and Giroux

374 pages, $27