Looking for peace, freedom amid fortune's blows

April 29, 2007|By Laura Ciolkowski | Laura Ciolkowski,Chicago Tribune

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.

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