Unlucky in Love

A Handbook to Luck (Knopf, 2007) by Cristina García

In the opening scene of A Handbook to Luck, a young Cuban named Enrique Florit recalls his father, a second-rate magician, performing in a seedy cocktail lounge. His latest trick involved doves riding a battery-powered motorcycle across a tiny tightrope, yet they “performed unpredictably,” occasionally “flying out of the room altogether.”

The literary magic is somewhat more successful in Cristina García’s fourth novel. It begins in 1968, and follows the lives of Enrique and two other characters for the next twenty years. In addition to the Cuban father-and-son team, we meet Marta Claros, who flees violence in El Salvador to make a new start in the United States, and Leila Rezvani, a privileged young woman in Iran.

They are all exiles, not just from their homelands but their hopes and dreams. Enrique is a math whiz who turns down MIT in order to support his feckless father by playing poker. Marta makes her way to Los Angeles, where she becomes the mistress of an aging Korean businessman. And Leila, who has a brief, bittersweet romance with Enrique, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage after the Shah’s downfall.

Those familiar with García’s oeuvre will find old as well as new pleasures. She made her debut with Dreaming in Cuban, a nostalgic, multi-generational tale of Cuban women, nominated for a National Book Award in 1992. Some critics complained that her sophomore effort, The Aguero Sisters, was another helping of the same. But her next, Monkey Hunting, painted a broader historical canvas of the Chinese migration to Cuba in the 19th century.

A Handbook to Luck is García’s most ambitious try yet, written from shifting points of view in spare yet lyrical prose. Surprisingly, the most vivid, fully realized scenes take place not in Cuba but El Salvador and Iran. While this proves the value of fresh settings, it also shows her growing versatility as a writer.

García’s protagonists are unlucky in love, and meet their fates with regret, unable to change the outcome. As Enrique consoles himself, “There was no convincing ‘why’ to anything, no answers, just good luck or bad tilting life one way or the other.” But despite this, they never stop yearning for what might have been, like many exiles before them.