By Cristina Garcia
New York: Aldred A. Knopf, Inc, 2007
ISBN # 978-0-307-26436-7
259 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2016

Cristina Garcia has long been one of my favorite novelists, and A HANDBOOK TO LUCK is no exception. However, I wasn’t too sure if it should be classified as a novel, or as a rather clever manner of presenting a group of short stories.

We follow the lives of four principals: Enrique from Cuba, Marta Carlos and her brother Evaristo from El Salvador, and Leila Rezvani from Iran. Each comes to the United States under different circumstances, but at relatively the same time, and we follow them from 1968 to 1987. There are some overlaps where they meet each other, including a passionate very short love affair between Enrique and Leila, however, the actual time they spend together is measured in hours not days. Thus, in many ways this is like three to four short stories, with some minor overlaps here and there.

This doesn’t make the story of each any less fascinating and gripping, yet it seemed to me to read less like a novel than a very creative manner of writing a book of long short stories.

Enrique’s father, Fernando Florit is a magician, but he has serious language difficulties. This lack of fluent English weighs on him since language is important to the deceptions of a magician. He chose to bring the two of them to L.A., but the 9 year old Enrique often wished they’d gone to Florida like so many other Cuban immigrants. However, after nearly 20 years in L.A. and Las Vegas, Enrique is a “western” U.S. citizen.

Enrique turns out to be quite a mathematics wizard and is even invited to take a scholarship at any number of well-known universities. However, he can never really break away from his father and their lives in the world of gambling and Las Vegas show business.

Eventually he meets up with Leila Rezvani when she comes for a short stay in Las Vegas.

He falls madly in love with her and drives her back to Los Angeles to her waiting Iranian fiancé. She’s a student at UCLA studying factory robots.

They have fallen madly and immediately in love, then a truck hits their car and there’s a bad accident and everything changes. Soon she goes back to her Iranian fiancé, less because she loves him that that’s what her mother would want.

For a while Enrique floats around gambling on cruise ships, and then he meets Delia, loves her enough to marry her and settle down. He finally gives up his gambling and becomes a dealer which allows him a more steady income and work world. However, he can never get Leila off his mind, and when his father dies and he is going through his papers, he discovers a two year old letter from Leila which his father had never given him, and he realizes that she will never return to him.

We meet young Marta Claros when she is selling used clothing and things. She’s just 9, not in school, but wishes she were. Her step-father beats her mother a lot. In general she lives a quite difficult life, yet she never seems to complain.

Evaristo is her younger brother, who even as young boy lives a very strange life. He’s run away from home and sleeps in a tree house he made.

Eventually, taking many risks, she makes it illegally into the United States and begins a new life; eventually and she even brings Evaristo to the States as well.

In the U.S. she gets a modest job and is popular. Her Korean boss, much older than she, likes her and offers her a chance to get her brother into the U.S. in exchange for marrying him. His is, however, a decent and fair man. Thus eventually Evaristo joins her in the U.S., but continues his radically counter-cultural way of life.

In 1981 she lives in L.A. She even illegally raises chickens in a decent neighborhood and lives with Frankie, her boss and owner of the factory. She’s about 40 years his junior.

Frankie is Korean and owns his own factory. He is married to a Chinese woman, but she doesn’t live with him and as long as he shares his money with her she doesn’t seem at all unhappy that Frankie lives his own life with Marta.

Marta very much wants a child, but just can’t get pregnant. Then her aunt in El Salvador is pregnant and wants to give her the baby. She’s thrilled and they work out the illegal ways in which to get the young baby into the U.S. where Marta just passes the child off as her own.

Leila Rezvani was born and raised in Tehran. She is from a wealthy and influential family and is sent to school in Switzerland. She leans to speak fluent English and French as well and eventually goes to university in the U.S.

Her family is mixed. Her mother, while being an Irani citizen is from a Russian family which had come to Iran in 1917. Her father is a very learned man, however he is in a difficult political position since he’s been an open critic of the Shah.

Mama is from a white Russian family that came to Iran in 1917. She is also quite taken with her English gardener!

Eventually Leila marries an Irani man who comes to the U.S. where he has a job at Los Alamos, which is quite pleasing to the Irani government since any one trained in nuclear science at Los Alamos is more than welcomed back to Iran! They have a young daughter, but their marriage is not a very happy one.

She and her husband seem often to spend time away from each other and she decides to take a trip to Las Vegas just to relax. There she meets Enrique Florit at one of the casinos and they hit it off. He falls madly in love with her and begs her to let him drive her back to Los Angeles. They have a very brief time together, but remain in love, though not really in contact for the rest of their lives.

When she returns to Los Angeles her husband’s brother had killed himself, but, since such a death would be devastation to his prominent family, they pass his death off as an illness, but her husband, Sadegh, decides they will move back to Iran, where he is most welcomed and becomes quite prominent.

She remains sad, depressed, wishing escape and remembering Enrique and the freedom she experienced in the U.S. and even when at school in Switzerland. When her husband refuses her to allow her to take a trip back to the U.S. she simply gives up on life.

Overall I very much enjoyed the novel. However, I found the structure, first a section focusing on one character, and then another, followed by another and eventually back to the first as the section orders were repeated. I had a difficult time remembering where had I left off with this or that character in the last section I read, thus I’d often have to return to my notes to follow the continuity of this or that person’s life story. I’m sure that Cristina Garcia was exploring the complexities of such a structure, and it certainly was creative. Yet for me the structure of the novel made it more confusing and even frustrating rather than adding to my reading pleasure and understanding.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu