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A Handbook to Luck by Cristina Garcia

A Handbook to Luck (2007)

by Cristina Garcia

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Enrique, Marta, and Leila are three young adult immigrants to the U.S. coming of age in the mid-1970s. They live at the margins; Enrique because his father's itinerant career as a magician keeps him and his son on the brink of poverty; Leila because her family is not sure whether to leave Iran, which is about to depose the Shah and usher in something that will disrupt their privileged, westernized lives; and Marta, fleeing an abusive husband and the turmoil of the coming civil war in El Salvador.

Enrique is the locus, as he'll cross paths with Leila, who briefly becomes his lover and who he pines after for the rest of his life. Marta becomes his maid after he becomes a semi-wealthy Los Angeles businessman. I'm not sure why Garcia did not orchestrate some kind of connection and encounter between Marta and Leila; each chapter is named for one of the three characters, and in a locked room novel like this it seems like all three should have crossed paths with each other.

Marta and Leila witness and survive some pretty harsh incidents in their countries before landing in the U.S. Garcia's writing doesn't ring exciting in these passages. Chronicling the atrocities of the "White Hand" death squads in El Salvador or the brutal manhandling of the post-Shah religious police ought not to come off as bland.

She does a good job evoking the zeitgeist of the mid-to-late 1970s to early 1980s in the post-Watergate, pre-AIDS and PC United States, the brutal political landscape of Central America, and the cataclysm about to shake Iran. Material like this should drip with passion. ( )
  chorn369 | Feb 15, 2011 |
I really liked this book. The characters were interesting - although flawed and not well suited to care for his son, I found the magician to be very likable. His love for his son was palpable, and his struggle to maintain his career took many interesting turns. The other characters also felt very real to me, and their intersections seemed plausible. Not always happy, but that seemed authentic. Garcia writes with such detail, and the characters and settings really came alive for me. There was a lot of symbolism, and a deeper level of meaning, for which I would appreciate a second reading. ( )
  mostlyliterary | Jan 24, 2009 |
A Handbook To Luck, by Christina Garcia, is a lovely novel about the bittersweet roles that luck, coincidence, happenstance, and choice play in our lives.

It’s a very short novel that feels more like three intertwining novellas. The stories unfold chronologically as we follow three separate protagonists—Enrique Florit, the mathematically gifted Cuban-American son of a flamboyant professional magician; Marta Claros, a child of abject poverty from the slums of San Salvador; and Leila Rezvani, a wealthy and privileged daughter of an Iranian surgeon and his vain Russian wife. We watch their lives in brief snapshots from 1968 through 1987. We learn about the sorrows, joys, difficult decisions, and everyday pleasures that mark their existence as each struggles to build a decent and happy life. The character’s lives cross paths in unexpected ways. Luck comes in many guises. Sometimes the characters recognize their good fortune and seize the moment, but at other times they are totally unaware of these golden opportunities and let them slip away. This is a book about choices, about the paths taken and not taken in our lives.

The author, Christina Garcia, is a 48-year-old Cuban-American who studied political science and international relations at Barnard and Johns Hopkins before starting work as a journalist for Time magazine. Eventually, she turned her attention to writing poetry and novels. This work is her fifth novel. According to a newspaper interview about the book (Charleston, Sunday Gazette, July 22, 2007), the author recently took up painting and is making an artist studio for herself in her Napa Valley, California, home. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I read this. Garcia’s prose is filled with subtle lyrical nuance and vivid imagery—exactly what I’d expect from a writer who is also a poet and a painter. For me, reading her prose was what I enjoyed most about this short, wise, and emotionally layered work.

This novel takes a large philosophical view on life, and it will probably cause readers to reminisce about their own lives and missed opportunities. The book gets only a three-and-a-half star rating from me primarily because I felt a bit let down by the end—I wanted more from the plot and the character’s lives. But, the book is a beautiful, well-written story, and I recommend it. Don’t hesitate to read it if you want a short, contemplative book that is as easy and quick to read, as it is beautiful and meaningful. ( )
1 vote msbaba | Mar 18, 2008 |
This was a really relaxing book to read. At times I felt like it wasn't going anywhere, but it was, just in an unexpected direction. ( )
  tswim44 | Jun 20, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 030726436X, Hardcover)

From the acclaimed author of Monkey Hunting (“A miracle of poetic compression . . . An epic of anecdotes, a vista of brief and beautiful glimpses” —Los Angeles Times Book Review), a lyrical, haunting, deeply moving new novel.

Late 1960s. We meet three children: Enrique Florit, from Cuba, living in southern California with his flamboyant magician father . . . Marta Claros, getting by in the slums of San Salvador, forced to leave school to help support her family, her beloved older brother having already left home . . . Leila Rezvani, a well-to-do surgeon’s daughter in Tehran, her mother concerned only with appearances, her father an often foolishly vocal opponent of the Shah.

As we follow them across the next twenty years—the narrative moving among their lives—we see Enrique, a math whiz from a young age, sacrificing his dream of attending MIT to filial duty, and the dream of passionate love to the exigencies of reality . . . Marta, fleeing war in El Salvador, making her way illegally into the United States and finding wholly unexpected possibilities . . . Leila, allowing the expectations of her mother to pull her into an arranged marriage and the constricted life of women in postrevolutionary Iran. We see chance draw Leila and Marta into Enrique’s life—Leila and Enrique loving and losing each other, Marta the means to renewed hope for Enrique—and, throughout, “good luck or bad tilting life one way or another” for all of them.

With its cast of vividly drawn characters, its graceful movement through time and the psychological shifts between childhood and adulthood, and its subtle revelation of the essential hopes and doubts of ordinary people whose lives are made extraordinary by circumstance both tragic and joyful, A Handbook to Luck is Cristina García’s most beautiful, elegiac, and deeply emotional novel yet.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Follows three young people--Cuban-born Enrique, living in California; Marta, growing up in the violent slums of San Salvador; and Leila, enjoying an upper-middle-class youth in Tehran--as their lives intertwine over the course of twenty years.

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