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TOP 500 REVIEWERon August 17, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Barbarian Nurseries begins with the flip sides of LA: the one that Hollywood showcases, populated by prosperous, shallow, socially competitive consumers; and the one almost invisibly populated by maids, landscapers, day laborers, and the other workers who, speaking heavily accented English, struggle to sustain their families while serving the needs of those who hire them. I am impressed by the fullness of the characters on both sides of the economic divide.

The principle characters of means are Scott Torres and his wife, Maureen Thompson. The Torres-Thompsons and their three children live in a posh house tended by a staff they can no longer afford. As the novel opens, the gardener and nanny have been recently sacked, leaving only Araceli, the maid whose duties suddenly expand to include childcare without a commensurate increase in pay. Following a mild incident of domestic violence, Scott and Maureen make independent decisions to take a "break" from domestic life. Maureen goes to a spa with their daughter, Scott doesn't come home from work, and neither of them bothers to tell the other -- or, more importantly, Araceli, who finds herself taking care of the two boys without guidance from their parents.

Araceli, fearful that the kids will be placed in foster care if she calls the police, begins a journey through the sprawling city and its suburbs in search of their paternal grandfather. Héctor Tobar uses Araceli's quest to illustrate the city's cultural evolution: the ever-changing character of its neighborhoods as members of various ethnic groups settle in and later move on, replaced by new arrivals with a different group identity. Tobar sketches the people Araceli meets in a way that makes each a community representative without sacrificing the character's individual identity.

Araceli's well-intentioned trip begets a chain of events: misunderstanding morphs into misplaced blame that feeds xenophobic fears of undocumented immigrants. Sadly enough, the news media's instant fascination with the story of missing children -- cute white children from an affluent family allegedly abducted by a Mexican woman -- is all too credible.

The last section of the novel is an indictment of the media's "talking heads" who make accusations of criminal behavior before they have all the facts, of prosecutors who feel compelled by media pressure to accuse the innocent, and of the television viewers who -- lacking the patience to wait until a trial brings out all the facts -- allow race or ethnicity to influence their opinions about guilt. While the story loses some of its magic as it shifts from the personal to the political, it also gains power and social relevance. At least for me, the magic returns near the novel's end, beginning with some realistic courtroom drama.

The last section captures an unfortunate aspect of American life with deadly accuracy. In an ideal world, the "no harm, no foul" rule would leave the parents and Araceli free from repercussions, but Tobar recognizes that the media-driven lust for scapegoats drives decisions about arrest, prosecution, and deportation. In different ways, both Araceli and the Torres-Thompsons become victims of politics and a frenzied media. Those with an agenda view Araceli and the Torres-Thompsons as symbols, not as persons.

Tobar's handling of this serious social issue is nuanced: he doesn't simplistically portray all affluent whites as evil or all immigrants as nonjudgmental victims. Scott and Maureen demonstrate complex and evolving reactions to the crisis. They are never depicted as uncaring parents although some members of the public, including some in the Hispanic community, unjustly regard them that way. Some members of the criminal justice system are sympathetic to Araceli and indifferent to political pressures; others are motivated by headlines. Tobar's deft and balanced juggling of these different points of view is impressive.

The Barbarian Nurseries is a captivating, beautifully written novel that tells a timely and important story. It is also one of the best novels I've read this year. I highly recommend it.
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Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Imagine a Tom Wolfe - or perhaps a T.C. Boyle or Don DeLillo - novel without some of the more tempered nuances. The Barbarian Nurseries is a social novel, focusing largely on the schisms between the wealthy and the immigrant population in Southern California and it's good - at times, really good - before dissolving into a disappointing ending.

Scott Torres is a programmer, a Mexican American with the emphasis on the American, who has fulfilled the American dream: he lives with his lovely blond wife Maureen Thompson, his two sensitive and precocious young sons Brandon and Keenan and his baby daughter Samantha in wealthy gated L.A. community he can ill-afford. The Spanish-style house - Paseo Linda Bonita, a redundancy - is an immediate clue that this is not a community that is primed to understand those who toil in its households.

After falling on hard times, he dismisses all the servants with one exception: Araceli, his illegal Mexican maid. One night, Scott and Maureen get into a particularly vicious fight about Maureen's plan to replace the "petite forest" tropical garden with a very pricey desert landscape. Each separately decides to take a little break from home, leaving the two boys with Araceli. Unwilling and ill-equipped to handle her two charges, Araceli takes off on an ill-advised adventure to downtown Los Angeles, where she hopes to deposit the boys with their grandfather. When the parents return home four days later (each thinking the other is already there) they reach the absurd conclusion that Araceli has absconded with their sons and the result is the predictable media circus.

Hector Tobar is at heart, a journalist, and his writing reflects his careful journalist's eye for detail. That is both the good news and the bad news. On one hand, we - as readers - receive full details on each scene, straight to the freshly dusted living rooms, tautly made beds, and photographs from places south with KODAK imprinted anachronistically on the back. On the other hand, all the work is done for us: Tobar tells us what we are viewing and how we should relate to it, not empowering us to come to our own conclusions.

Yet, for about three-quarters on the book, I was swept away with the contrasting worlds, the isolation of those who live affluent lifestyles in gated communities versus those who exist in a "shadow world". Araceli is portrayed as "the strange one, the Mexicana they couldn't comprehend, but it would fall to her to bring the Torres-Thompson household by restoring the broken routines..." There are truths that Tobar reveals: e.g., Arceli divulges the cost of the boys' private school to her aspirational friends, which "strips them of some of their own moderately elevated sense of accomplishment by revealing just how small their achievements were relative to true American success and affluence."

The two distinct camps - those who live in gleaming white homes in a neighborhood most often described with the adjectives "exclusive, " "hillside," and "gated," - and those who they know only in the most superficial manner, are very well portrayed.

Where Tobar falls is in the last quarter of the novel, where the novel becomes obvious and heavy-handed. At one point, when Maureen meets the aggressive prosecutor, she reflects, "This man is telling me what to feel as much as he's telling me what to think." I felt the same way about the author. The camps were too finely drawn - the rich and irresponsible parents, the befuddled but blameless Mexican maid. The book becomes more pedestrian and predictable, losing some of its magic.

My conclusion: this is a good book that could easily have been a great book. Tobar does capture the complexity of one of our most unique cities - as well as the biases and assumptions that may end up toppling us. For that alone, the book is well worth the read.
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VINE VOICEon September 24, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
To say that I enjoyed reading "The Barbarian Nurseries" from the start would be grossly inaccurate. For the first few pages, I felt like the book was just going to be one let-down after the next - the shifting between character perspectives (all done in third person) felt awkwardly done in the first chapter and I had to grit my teeth to keep myself reading. But that was it. Once I got used to the way Héctor Tobar seamlessly (yes, seamlessly!) switched narrative, the experience was heightened into something beyond most books. Because "The Barbarian Nurseries" is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, one of the most interesting and challenging ones, as well as one of the best written.

From the early pages of "The Barbarian Nurseries", Tobar introduces a trio of different and somewhat confusing characters: Araceli the maid (who based on the book blurb would appear to be the primary character in this broad-scoped novel), Maureen the mother, and Scott the father. These three present themselves to the reader within the first chapter and perhaps it was this that had me frustrated. At the start, Tobar doesn't mind giving us somewhat stereotypical and bland figurines. The beauty of "The Barbarian Nurseries" kicks in once the characters begin to grow beyond their original sketch, once their thoughts and motives become clear. Gradually - and it does take some time - the reader is led to sympathize entirely with the mistakes each of our characters makes and learns to understand what makes these three tick. But they are not alone in making "The Barbarian Nurseries" a good book - far from it.

For example, "The Barbarian Nurseries" is one of the only adult-geared books I've read in a VERY long time that has a cast of entirely believable young characters, each driven by their own personalities. Of the two Torres-Thompson boys, the 11-year old Brandon receives more care and attention (the younger Keenan does not feature as a point-of-view character, making him far less developed than his brother) - tossed in the midst of his parents' drama, Brandon contributes marvelously to the story through the mind of a child. There are numerous fantasy/wish-fulfillment themes running throughout the book, most starkly seen through Brandon's sheltered eyes. For me, these fantasy themes provided the core of "The Barbarian Nurseries"'s ideology and alone would make the book worth reading.

But there's so much more. Though the final section - which shifts perspective and theme almost entirely, going from family drama to shaking a finger in the direction of the current sensationalist media - lacks some of the realistic nuances that made the first two-thirds of the book so wonderful, there's plenty of emotion and power in the concluding actions of the characters. Some of it feels like wish-fulfillment on behalf of Tobar, but it's all in line with the truth... and with the characters themselves. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels too neatly plotted. Above all else, "The Barbarian Nurseries" flows. Even with the introduction of somewhat caricature-like characters near the end, I was sufficiently invested in Tobar's world that it hardly even mattered.

Ultimately, "The Barbarian Nurseries" is a book built on themes. Whether or not it's the fantasy-world theme I so related to, or the artist theme that fills Araceli's story, or the piercing view of the modern upper-middle-class Californian family falling apart while trying so hard to stay together, or the immigration theme (and ideology) that is so dominant, "The Barbarian Nurseries" manages to tell a good story with excellent central characters, wrapped up with wonderful writing. Tobar writes naturally, his dialogue coming off as organic and believable (if somewhat hard to follow at times for non-Spanish speakers, though Tobar makes sure to include an informal and casual translation of the more complex phrases). I'm not one to mark passages when reading, but "The Barbarian Nurseries" had me placing tabs on all kinds of pages, noting sentences of particular worth, thoughts that hit home in a particularly powerful manner.

One of the best books I've read in a while. Highly recommended.
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on October 8, 2011
The "barbarian Nurseries" was written by Hector Tobar. Mr. Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants and was born in 1963. He currently writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times and was previously employed by the Times as bureau chief in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Mr. Tobar was the recipient of a Pulizer Prize as part of the team covering the L.A. riots in 1992.

The Novel was written as a narration, presumably expressing the author's view point. It contains many conversational instances of characters speaking in their native Spanish; otherwise English dialog is assigned to the character speaking. Many of the Spanish language exchanges are not accompanied by translation.

In summary, the story is about the well to do Thompson-Torres family represented by Wife and mother, Maureen; husband and father, Scott; sons, 11 year old Brandon and eight year old Keenan and baby daughter Samantha. The opening scenes finds the Thompson-Torres family, struggling with financial problems that cause them to dismiss two of their three Mexican domestic help retaining one, Araceli Ramirez. In the course of the drama, Scott and Maureen get into a domestic squabble over Maureen's expenditure of needed capital on the redesign of an outdoor garden. Scott, in the heat of the argument pushes Maureen who falls backward striking the coffee table breaking its glass top. Struck by the violence in the act, Maureen gathers up her baby and flees to a spa in the high desert mountains above Joshua Tree while Scott seeks out the company of an office employee and bunks out there. The irony of the situation then being that neither spouse knew that the other would not be returning home. Araceli's plight begins when she finally recognizes that her employers have left her with the two sons and no indication of where they are or when they will return. She fears calling the police because she imagines that the boys will be given over to foster care if she does and that she will be deported. After several days alone and realizing they are running out of food, Araceli packs up the two sons and launches out with her troupe to find Grandfather Torres' house; a place where Araceli feels she can safely leave the boys. It has been two years since Grandfather Torres was last allowed to visit following a family disagreement and the home had been purged of any links to him except an old photograph of the grandfather taken at a location indicated on the back as West 39th street, LA. While Araceli and the boys are on their expedition to West 39th street to find Grandfather Torres, four days later Scott and Maureen return home to find the house empty. Not understanding what could have happened to Araceli and the boys, Scott and Maureen call the police. To the police, Araceli is a fugitive and kidnapper and from here both Araceli's and the Thompson-Torres' life begin to unravel under the heavy hand of institutional "justice".

Tobar writes with a purpose; to expose what he considers the naïve fear and mischaracterization of Mexican immigrants as barbarians. He portrays Araceli as bright, honest and talented though misunderstood. Mr. Tobar no doubt believes that immigrants seeking a life in the United States should be granted that privilege without the encumbrance of doing so legally because immigrants are not any different than the rest of the population. He despises the people that operate the US justice system and sees them as uncaring bureaucrats concerned only with their own advancement; done so at the expense of the unwitting defendant's they prosecute in the system.

In the attempt to get this message out in his narrative, Tobar produces a weak story line. Its credibility only just passes the possibility threshold. In the process of filling in the details of the story, Tobar unwittingly contradicts his own arguments exposing the dichotomy that is prevalent in the national discourse. For instance, he wants us to believe that the Mexican nationals crossing into the US are mostly hard working, honest individuals that should be accepted.....and at the same time shows the reader the decadent landscape of West 39th street LA, once a middle class neighborhood, now a barrio and ghetto of barred windows and doors where the mere presence of a woman with two young children would have the woman charged with child endangerment! In another instance, Tobar would like us to believe that all the immigrants entering the populace are here to better their lives by assimilating with their new countrymen; yet even the protagonist of his story wants only to return to her country with the money she has earned, for her passions lie with her people not the foreigners who would exploit her.

The depiction of Ian Goller, the assistant DA in the story, as a 38 year old earring wearing, surfboard carrying autocrat who is inherently prejudiced against Latin American immigrants is eyebrow raising. Tobar is expressing great displeasure with a social justice system that seems more concerned with dispensing with cases than dispensing with justice. In the same breath, however, he acknowledges that the cases of immigrants are clogging the American court system, and 95% of the cases involve serious crimes.
Hector Tobar's message is a contemporary statement of the moral, political and social stigma of our immigration policies. It is without doubt argumentative, and whichever side of the issues you stand on it is painfully evident that there is no absolute solution to the problem - for each side has its passion.

I would recommend this novel only with reservations: I think the story line is weak though interesting enough. I think the characters are not particularly endearing in any manner. Araceli comes across as particularly strange, and it doesn't seem to be a result of her intellectual prowess. Scott and Maureen are atypical and Ian Goller is anything but a classic prosecutor. The underlying theme is divisive. Finally, I did not care for the manner of narration. Uncharacteristic thoughts and dialog were attributed to characters, especially the young boys as in this exchange:" The small steel rectangle that announced Laguna Niguel in the spare, sans-serif font, of the Metrolink commuter rail network didn't rise to the occasion, and Brandon frowned at the recognition that actual life did not always match the drama and sweep of literature or film". Really - would an 11 year old boy think about the drama and sweep of literature or film? He would probably be more interested in whether he could hit the sign with a rock from where he was standing!
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Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The upscale LA gated community of the Torres-Thompson household has a breathtaking view of the ocean, and a lush tropical or semi-tropical garden maintained by Pepe the underpaid Mexicano gardener. Ironically, the elevation and climate of this suburban McMansion is really desert, so when the Torres-Thomspon household is forced to lay off Pepe due to personal financial problems, and Guadalupe, their underpaid Mexicana nanny, Scott Torres and Maureen Thomson are helpless with their tropical or semi-tropical garden, and it begins to curl up, dry out, and die.

The nanny duties without extra pay now fall on the housekeeper and cook, Araceli, their remaining employee, an undocumented Mexicana who was once an art student in Mexico City until economic problems forced her to seek solace in the US. The three offspring of the Torres-Thompsons are, in Maureen's opinion, the real homegrown exotic orchids that need to be nurtured and nourished with expensive toys, outstanding birthday parties, and private schools, as well as a limit to the gaming devices coveted by Scott Torres, a once big-time game software developer now working in a managerial capacity and watching his funds slip from his ever loosening grasp.

Maureen is a housewife in charge of their two inquisitive sons and a toddler, with a wallet full of overextended credit cards that she intends to use to ecologically balance her garden and fill it with ginormous cacti and succulents. Maureen defends this intervention (by a professional service) after her dying tropical or semi-tropical garden was ridiculed at her son's birthday party. She decides to correct that by planting "natural" flora, at an obscene $10,000.

There are many contrasts and literary allusions immediately felt by the reader that express dramatic and comedic irony, and a deep well of extended metaphors in this novel of identity, class, home, politics, greed, media agenda, ethnic bigotry, and hypocrisy in Southern California.

On the first page, Scott Torres, who Maureen once called "King of the 21st Century," is attempting to master the lawnmower that Pepe handled with such facility. This is analogous to Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, attempting to subjugate and leash a dachshund. McCoy's life as "Master of the Universe" has yet to be destroyed, but his inability to easily conquer a dog foreshadows with terrific nuance. In Tobar's story, Torres is already financially defeated as the novel opens, and his delayed triumph over the lawnmower is superbly demonstrated, especially as Araceli is secretly watching his bumbling attempts with grim satisfaction.

In just a few well-drawn sentences, native Guatemalan Tobar has hooked the reader with character definition and dimension. His repeated, sardonic use of "Torres-Thompson household" alone is sufficient to subtly inform the reader of the irony of contrasts and the conspicuous class conceit. They are the textbook prosperous family--earnestly politically correct, yet as protective as monarchs, trying to straddle the fence between their adopted idealism of cultural "equality" and their actual lifestyles. The ambitious scope of this novel--to take the reader further and further into a culturally Hispanic LA in order to accent the Torres-Thompson duplicity, spotlight the city's phony pietism and sanctimony, and render redemption, is where it fails.

What happened? Tobar's authorial intrusion came on strong and early; his inconsistent style often drifted to telegraphing and expository writing, doing the thinking for the reader. Nuance was eclipsed by affected and heavy-handed manipulation, so that it stalled out by the middle of the book.

Despite Tobar's own native culture, which I expected to aid in providing the reader with an authentic reading experience, I was distanced early on. He lacked the vernacular and idiomatic honesty of The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He gave us an "invasive species" metaphor, like Diaz's mongoose, to play with, he gave us a dissembling family, and then he stole that novel away from us and started intruding with stereotypes and telecasts. There is a gritty, epic story in here, but Tobar invaded his narrative with forced entry, and trumpeted his themes too obtrusively. A few more drafts and adept authorial removal could restore this story to its opening brilliance.
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on February 7, 2012
The Barbarian Nurseries starts slowly in an opulent and oppressively quiet neighborhood in South Orange County. The reader arrives in the middle of the Torres-Thompson family as they prepare for their son's birthday party. The first section of the book we see how the three main characters of the book, Maureen, Araceli and Scott have constructed careful facades of their lives.

There is Maureen, a `perfect' mother with `perfect' children. Her house is clean, her children are educated, their birthday parties are events, but her perfection is her downfall. In order to fulfill the exacting standards she has set for herself she has spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on her home, her furniture and her employees. Scott is her worried and distracted husband who is dissatisfied at work and increasingly stressed about their hemorrhaging bank account. The silent observer of their relationship is Araceli, their housekeeper who has been deputized into being their nanny without her consent. Araceli is professional and efficient, judgmental and irritable. She wanted to be an artist, instead she keeps house.

A chain of events results in Scott and Maureen unknowingly abandoning their boys with Araceli. (It sounds like a stretch, I know, but it is plotted out in such a way that it is entirely believable.) After two days alone, Araceli takes the boys to find their grandfather with only an old photo as her guide.

What follows is an adventure through the parts of LA that don't make it into the reality shows, the Los Angeles that has been burned and rebuilt, the one that is ugly and intense, that has received immigrants from constantly changing home countries, the LA that people hope to pass through on the way to a better life.

The middle of the book is fast-paced and entertaining- you can imagine what happens when the parents return home to find their children missing- while the end veers more heavily toward social commentary on the judicial system and the politics surrounding immigration.

As one reads the book, it is not difficult to discern where Tobar's politics lie in the illegal immigration debate, however, an interesting choice he made is that those characters who emerge to persecute Araceli are not drawn as racist neo-nazis, but rather as people lost in nostalgia, desperately trying to recapture the California of their youth.

And there is no moving backward is there? To quote Araceli, "We have to keep going."
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VINE VOICEon September 26, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I picked up The Barbarian Nurseries after a months-long reading dry spell caused by needing to focus my time and energy on a test. So for me, reading The Barbarian Nurseries was like water to someone stranded in the desert. This is the type of excellent fiction I always hope for when opening a new book: the plot is intriguing, the descriptions paint amazingly realistic pictures in your mind, and the characters are fascinating. That is my trifecta for a great book.

Hector Tobar is extremely skilled at crafting interesting and realistic characters. The world of wealthy Scott and Maureen collide with that of their housekeeper Araceli one fateful Southern California summer. The financial crisis has forced Scott to take a hard look at his lavish lifestyle and for the first time in his adult life consider going without some of the luxuries he's accustomed to. The family housekeeper, Araceli, a Mexican immigrant is forced to take a more involved role when Scott lets the nanny and gardener go.

Conflict, miscommunication, and above all cultural misunderstanding ensue. Without getting overtly political the author really forces the reader to confront the consequences that misunderstandings on a variety of levels can cause.

I would highly recommend this book--especially for readers interested in California culture.
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on November 9, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It took me nearly six weeks to finish this book, when it should have taken one to two weeks at most. Some days I could only read two or three pages. Not only is the story slow-moving and tedious, but the author's agenda is overpowering. Whenever he wants to be sure you get his point, he spells it out by putting it fully formed into the thoughts of one of the characters. I felt like I was constantly being bludgeoned with authorial intent.

The story becomes progressively more implausible after Araceli is left alone with the two children of her employers. It's just not realistic to think that her only solution would be to take them on a long trek across L.A. with only a hazy destination. The author makes a special point of letting us know throughout the book that Araceli is not dumb. So why would she do something so ridiculous?

For all his heavy-handed treatment, it's hard to say after finishing the book exactly what points the author was trying to make. Unfair distribution of wealth is nothing new. Unfair treatment of Mexican immigrants is not news, either. Was he trying to say that Mexican immigrants are intelligent and hard-working and deserve some respect? Maybe. For me the message was cloudy and the story was not enjoyable.
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VINE VOICEon January 12, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In some ways this is a very well written book. The characterizations are very well done-you feel as if you actually know the people. The author has a good flow to his narratives and well nuanced descriptive powers. I enjoyed a lot of the book for these reasons. However, the plot line was very thin and somewhat hard to believe: Araceli is a Mexican maid in a seemingly wealthy Mexican-American household. Through a comedy of errors, she is left alone with the two children and cannot contact the parents. After four days she decides to take them to their grandfather but is not sure exactly where he lives. A journey through urban sprawl and the barrio ensues. Eventually the parents come home and find the children gone. They call the police and a three ring circus develops. Araceli is eventually apprehended, accused of kidnapping, and goes to trial.

I found all this drama to be hard to swallow. Another thing was that all three main characters were hard to like. Araceli is sullen and resentful of America; Maureen is into appearances; Scott is the hard working absent father. Even the oldest boy is a little over the top with his vivid that imagination he develops from reading too many books and not interacting with other kids.

Also, the book is full of conflict regarding Mexican-American relations. On one hand , the author would have us believe that all Mexicans are upright citizens--then he describes and the crime and infighting in the barrios. Araceli constantly complains about America, but when offered to chance to go back home for free, she wants to stay. She is an undocumented worker who has a paycheck and lives rent free, but is resentful of the wealth that generations of Americans have accumulated. Other undocumented Mexicans have college degrees and yet are unwilling to become legal and resent the country that gave them what they have. Others are very hard working and willing to take on any task just to survive and have a very strong sense of family. Some succeed politically and try to help their fellow countrymen. In other words, they are just people like anyone else. I believe the book is trying to portray this but comes across as somewhat anti-American in the attempt. Most Americans are portrayed as vapid, hateful, aggressive, or just unconcerned. Again, there is too much drama getting these points across again and again.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. I am not sure I want to read anymore books by the author if they have the continual anti-American slant to them and all the melodrama.
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on October 5, 2013
In this comparison of wealthy families and their Mexican maids and gardeners, the characters remain flat and stereo-typical, even rather unbelievable at times. The story is often didactical, telling the reader what to think. There are a few loose ends, such as why the husband never charges his cell phone to hear the messages Araceli had left. In an attempt to recreate certain living conditions, there are long descriptive passages that do no add to, nor propel the story forward. The reader is not drawn to the characters as they are created, and the climax is weak. Editing out about 50 pages of the book might strengthen it.
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