Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Cuban, an El Salvadorean, and an Iranian land on the page and spend decades trying to find their place in the world. Yes? Then, you must have read Cristina García‘s A Handbook to Luck. No? Then read Cristina Garcia’s A Handbook to Luck!
In 1968 Los Angeles, 9-year-old Enrique Florit’s wait for his widowed father’s career as a magician to take off seems to be finally over when Papi announces they’re Las Vegas-bound where he’ll be the warm-up act for Sammy Davis, Jr. Further south in San Salvador, Marta Claros, also just 9, has been forced out of school to sell used clothes to help her pregnant mother; she manages to sneak visits to her brother Evaristo who left the family and lives in a tree. Two years later, on the other side of the world in a Tehran garden, Leila Rezvani is annoyed at her mother who won’t stop flirting with her imported, sweating British horticulturist, even as she’s somewhat awed (then manipulated) by her dying older brother.
Over the next two decades, these three lives (with rare intrusions by the tree-dwelling fourth) will dovetail. Misguided Enrique will prove to be a math wiz who gets into MIT but finds himself unable to abandon his increasingly erratic, gambling father; both remain forever haunted by the accidental death of Enrique’s mother. Desperate Marta finally gets off the San Salvador streets by becoming a teenage bride but finds true contentment thousands of miles away with a married Korean immigrant whose manhood was damaged by seven months of torture. Privileged Leila with her Swiss diploma and her should-have-finished UCLA-degree will marry half a twin and lose herself over and over again. And runaway Evaristo will eventually climb down from his tree, detour through California, before climbing a remote mountain alone …
Cuban-born García – best known for her 1992 National Book Award finalist debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban – moves fluidly between viewpoints and dates, while changing gender, ethnicity, social status, backgrounds with ease. If you choose to stick the book in your ears, narrator Staci Snell effortlessly matches García’s pace, adjusting inflections and tones to voice each developing character. García deftly reveals details of her protagonists’ lives in limited parcels, making sure each chapter both hints at and holds back just enough to keep reading to the next, and next, and next. Magic and accident, running from and running to, entitlement and entrapment – life is about perspective and, as García’s Handbook attests, it’s also about luck.