A Handbook to Luck chronicles the lives of three individuals and how their paths cross with the helping hand of luck: Enrique Florit, a Cuban math whiz with a flamboyant magician father; Marta Claros, who grew up in the San Salvador slums and escaped across the border to America; and Leila Rezvani, the daughter of a rich Iranian surgeon who marries an Iranian to please her family instead of her true love. The book follows their lives chronologically from childhood through adulthood in two to four-year increments and alternating viewpoints, so we hear from each character during each time period. Each longs to find happiness and his or her place in the world, and each endures suffering either from luck or from the choices made.
Enrique and his father fled the Cuban revolution to southern California. Math whiz Enrique works hard, learning to play and win at poker to finance an education at MIT. His father, on the other hand, continually tries to re-invent himself, never quite succeeding and racking up gambling debts. After losing his mother to an electrical accident during a magic trick gone wrong prior to leaving Cuba, Enrique feels compelled to care for his father rather than fulfill his own dreams.
We first meet Marta walking up and down the streets, selling used clothing to support her brother, who lives in a tree, and her emotionally-distant mother. She has always longed to go to America and, even more so, to have a child. She succeeds in crossing the border and finds a degree of happiness in a marriage with her elderly boss. Perhaps, it’s luck that finally gives her a child, albeit not one she bears herself.
Leila’s brother dies of leukemia, giving her opportunities normally not available to a girl such as boarding school in Switzerland and college in America. Leila falls in love in America but chooses instead to return to Iran and an arranged marriage with an abusive husband. The marriage, her return to Iran, and ultimately not following her heart all eventually break her down emotionally until she barely resembles the girl we first met strolling through her mother’s gardens.
Cristina Garcia writes beautifully with an eye for detail and an ear for language. You can smell the smoke and hear the clang of slot machines in Las Vegas casinos and feel the sand under your feet at the beach. Many of the scenes in the book evoke strong emotion, such as Marta’s escape across the border, but the characters as a whole remain dormant. Garcia’s penchant for detail overwhelms the storyline, making it hard for the reader to get to know the characters well or care one way or another what happens to them. What we see of the main characters reminds me of looking through an unfocused camera lens. We learn much about the birds Marta feeds, the Texans with whom Enrique plays poker and Leila’s spa treatment before her trip back to the United States, but we never quite see what makes them tick.
Also, the strict chronological narration leaves the reader waiting for important details. For instance, Enrique meets a young girl named Delia, but we don’t find out until reading sections about Marta and Leila that he marries her. Nonetheless, the question of how much of a role luck and/or fate play in life fascinates. Enrique studies odds, and the chance of many of the events occurring—including the death of Enrique’s mother—is slim enough to attribute them to fate. But other events, such as Leila’s marriage, result from knowingly made choices. We blame or thank luck for situations in our lives, and we make choices, but are the options from which we choose determined by luck?
A Handbook to Luck definitely makes one think about life and how we live it. Garcia has many recurring themes such as birds, but I never quite figured out the intended symbolism. I wanted to like the characters in this book, and Garcia is a talented writer, but I can’t say I recommend it. I try never to judge a writer on one book alone, so I will explore more of her work.