A Handbook to Luck
By Cristina Garcia
Knopf / 259 pages / $24
On the day a strong autumn wind threw a flock of storks off course, hurling them down to earth near the Havana stage where the magnificent Fernando Florit's magic act was in progress, life was permanently altered for the Florit family. The "hiccup of nature" that entangled one hapless stork in an electrical cable near the stage at precisely the same moment Fernando's Panamanian wife and assistant, Sirena Carranza, was fully submerged in a tank of water to perform the duo's aquarium escape act also left Fernando a widower and his 6-year-old son, Enrique, motherless.
Looking back at his misfortune, marooned with his father far from home in Las Vegas where Fernando, a hopeless optimist and get-rich-quick schemer, continued to dream of success, Enrique thought about "how the slightest mistake could kill a person. A wrong turn here, a misspoken word there, and boom - your luck ran out. Fortune wasn't something you could hold tightly in your hand like a coin."
In A Handbook to Luck, her pitch-perfect fourth novel, Cristina Garcia wrestles with the impersonal forces of the universe that tilt the fortunes of her characters this way and that. Garcia's kaleidoscopic narrative extends across three decades (from 1968 to 1984) and four countries, weaving together the lives of Enrique, Marta Claros and Leila Rezvani, each of whom seeks his or her own brand of freedom from oppression and struggles to find a measure of inner peace and happiness.
Cuban emigre Enrique is the guilt-ridden magician's son who has a gift for numbers but sacrifices his future to be his father's caretaker, "bailing him out of one scrape after another." Marta is an impoverished Salvadoran woman who searches for independence in the U.S. and an escape from the brutality of her husband, a police officer in the Salvadoran government whose job was "whitewashing the firing-squad wall to erase the remains of the dead." Leila is a privileged woman from Tehran who yearns to break away from the suffocating cultural and religious prohibitions that keep her chador-draped body "entombed in black, captive and invisible" and that police her most intimate thoughts and desires.
Garcia's novel (and the rich cast of characters that wend their way through it) is driven by a poetic sort of happenstance. In the trajectory of Marta's life, for example, an Englishwoman in El Salvador trips and falls, Marta comes to her aid and, in thanks for her kindness, is offered a housecleaning job that pays American dollars. Marta's American money ultimately enables her to trade the nearly asphyxiating hopelessness and violence of her life for a shiny new world thousands of miles away in Southern California.
Enrique's path to a modest but comfortable home in suburbia with his Cuban-American wife, Delia, their three young children and a swimming pool in the backyard feels, perhaps, equally as serendipitous. As a boy in Las Vegas with a facility for calculating odds and a father whose financial debts were typically as great as his dreams for personal success, Enrique reluctantly abandoned his future as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a career as a high-stakes poker player. He literally collides with Delia after being thrown off a gambling cruise ship, but not before falling deeply in love with Leila, a university student in Los Angeles who has traveled alone to Las Vegas on the eve of her wedding to an Iranian man picked by her mother. "I guess you could say I was testing my luck," she explains.
Like Marta and Leila, Enrique comes to appreciate the mysterious confluence of forces in life, forces that in his case result in the intersection of his own wayward path with that of Leila. Enrique searches for a rational principle to explain the sequence of his life and help him influence the direction his future will take, but he also comes to understand that the tightly plotted tales and logical patterns we impose upon our lives are little more than human fictions invented to sustain an imaginary sense of mastery over our otherwise inexplicable world: "Enrique thought of how random energies approached a common point before exploding. Chance intersecting with history and logic and reasonable expectations. Forbidden knowledge made visible, effaced and divine, as the gods busily issued disclaimers. In the end, everything was measured against mystery." Like the storks whose fate becomes entangled with Enrique's in Havana, and like the colorful finches, parakeets and canaries whose cages crowd the extravagant backyard aviary Marta must tend for one of her exploitative American employers ("Marta had begun dreaming in the birds' different languages: warbles and trills, screeches and cries, all the signals of need and displeasure"), each of Garcia's characters covets the freedom of flight and the power to make one's own way in the world, even as they muse over the dangers of venturing forth through the sky unprotected.
As a girl, Leila dreams of flight in the walled-in garden of her family's villa in Tehran, but as a woman she cannot muster the strength to resist the crush of tradition and leave her life of confinement behind. Her arranged marriage to an abusive man ensures for her a future based not on love or mutual understanding but on "capitulation, on the threat of violence and disgrace." The opening in the sky introduced by the fortuitous appearance of Enrique in her life is slowly obscured by the darkness of her days in Iran under her husband's rule. Leila has little freedom or power of self-determination, and her world shrinks along with her heart: "Leila missed Los Angeles, missed the peculiar gray of the Pacific, the seabirds plunging into the waves at dusk, her weekend scuba diving trips. Mostly, she missed the sense of possibility, of one day being different from the next. Why had she given up her freedom to marry Sadegh? What had it brought her except the world circling around her deadening heart?"
Leila is drawn to the dangerous pleasures of the sea and the sky, and the sexual and emotional freedom they represent. Leila feels like a prisoner in a society built on the subjugation of women, desiring "[m]ore than anything ... to swim freely in the Caspian Sea" and to experience once again the "ecstasy" of the flight of a bird. Leila and Marta never meet, but they share, along with Enrique, this romance with and fear of the awesome power of nature.
Born in Havana in 1958, shortly before Fidel Castro came to power, and raised in New York City from age 3, Garcia has always felt most at home as a writer in the bodies of Cubans and their extended emigre families. Yet while A Handbook to Luck returns briefly to Havana, where Enrique begins his life's journey, the book departs from the strong Cuban emphasis of her earlier novels, Dreaming in Cuban (1992),"The Aguero Sisters (1997) and Monkey Hunting (2003). Garcia is still drawn to describe the richness and variety of the immigrant experience. But in A Handbook to Luck she also fixes her attention on the fundamentally human desire to make sense of the world, to impose order on the chaos of nature and to rationalize one's mysterious place within it: "In life there was a before and an after, Enrique believed, a gap between what you wanted and what you got, between what you planned and what actually happened. ...
"Enrique didn't put faith in odds, or statistics, or reason anymore. Some things just couldn't be outrun. Odds might be calculated, inattention focused, reasoning torn apart. But luck, he thought, luck was something else entirely."
Laura Ciolkowski teaches literature at New York University. A longer version of this review appeared in the Chicago Tribune.