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"The Barbarian Nurseries" (November 23, 2011)

Festive, idealized Thanksgiving images are all too familiar. But we can't all live up to those images. If holiday hysteria has left you more frazzled than grateful, curl up with one of these unconventional takes on family and togetherness.

"The Barbarian Nurseries"

by Hector Tobar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27


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Scott and Maureen run a flawless household. But their charmed life rests largely on the shoulders of the couple's three Mexican employees: Pepe, the gardener; Guadalupe, the nanny; and Araceli, the maid. It is Araceli, an art school dropout who resents the daily condescension she faces in her current position, who forms the spiky but sympathetic heart of Hector Tobar's sprawling novel.

When Scott's and Maureen's finances get shaky, they let Pepe and Guadalupe go, leaving Araceli responsible for three young children as well as the housekeeping. Then Maureen comes up with a perfect money-saving idea — whose upfront cost maxes out Scott's credit card. They fight, and an ensuing miscommunication leaves Araceli alone in the house for days with the couple's two sons. Araceli finally decides to take the boys to their grandfather in the heart of Los Angeles, a journey that proves far more tortuous than she expects and one that has unforeseen personal consequences.

"The Barbarian Nurseries" is a Balzacian social novel that has the page-turning momentum of a thriller. It recalls the works of Jonathan Franzen in its ambition and those of Tom Perrotta in its acute domestic observations. But Tobar's vibrant prose style is all his own.

"Lucky Break"

by Esther Freud

Bloomsbury, $16

The main characters in "Lucky Break" aren't related by blood. But over a span of 14 years, their lives criss-cross and blend as much as any extended family's.

They first meet in 1992, as first-year students at a prestigious and grueling British acting school. Nell and Charlie, aspiring actresses who project very different images, wind up rooming together during Charlie's latest break-up with her boyfriend. Nell is expelled before her last year and embarks upon a hard-knock journey of "casting couch" auditions, quirky theater festivals and fickle agents. Insouciantly glamorous Charlie shoots quickly to the top of the acting game, only to find that success can be as alarming and lonely as obscurity.

Meanwhile, Dan and Jemma, a model student and a rebel, respectively, marry and have children but find their relationship strained when they move to Los Angeles in search of better opportunities for Dan. Esther Freud's light touch and eye for telling details — as well as her prior acting experience — make "Lucky Break" an enlightening peek behind the curtain.

"The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am"

by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

Dalkey Archive, $17.95

After a lifetime of reclusiveness, newly widowed Mathea Martinsen needs a change. But it's hard to get out and connect with people when she can't even look her neighbors in the eye. Mathea contents herself with eating unappetizing jam out of a tube because she's too embarrassed to ask a grocery clerk for help opening a jar.

She bakes sweet rolls for her apartment building's welcome party for the new superintendent, but she can't quite bring herself to deliver them. But worst of all, she frets that when she dies no one will notice.

Her efforts to keep that from happening form the core of Kjersti Skomsvold's bittersweet debut novel. "The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am" is heartbreaking in its final impact but idiosyncratically funny in its details. It will speak to anyone who feels a little out of place amid the holiday season's cheer and bustle.