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Book Review
 A Handbook to Luck

John S. Christie, Ph.D.

A Handbook to Luck
By Cristina Garcia
Knopf (2007)

Cristina Garcia’s first novel Dreaming in Cuban has to be recognized as one of a half dozen major works in U.S. Latino fiction.  Among the primary contenders for Latino canonical status: Oscar Hijuelos, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Helena Viramontes, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rudolfo Anaya, Cristina Garcia ranks very highly in most people’s estimates.   Expectations are understandably high then when her latest novel arrives.   Yet, disappointingly, when compared to a younger generation of Latino novelists and short story writers like the Daniels: Alarcón and Chacón or Cristina Henríquez, or Jamie Manrique, Garcia’s recent work seems formulaic and dated.  Like Julia Alvarez, she keeps writing novels, but one has to wonder why they’re not reaching their potential.   I have always admired writers (and actors) who choose the riskier paths, not only because experimentation and innovation are interesting games to play, but because they pushed themselves in uncomfortable directions, failing and succeeding but always changing and shaking things up: Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf or Bob Dylan come to mind.  Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, River Phoenix, Dinero, Hoffman, Streep.   It’s possible that Sandra Cisneros follows this path – from the little Mango to the lumbering Caramelo (even if it took her almost 20 years to get there) and Urrea has journeyed successfully from non-fiction into fiction with his brilliant Hummingbird’s Daughter, but it’s hard to see much adventure in Garcia’s new book. 


If you go to Google earth and swoop down on a city somewhere, then tilt the thing a bit and slowly glide over the tops of flattened, barely three dimensional buildings and streets and parks, you get the feeling you are sort of there, and sort of not.   You can see some things in an indistinct way, maybe partially recognize a corner, or an intersection, but you can’t really touch anything, can’t quite see it all as clearly as you want to.   You hover above the world.  This is what it feels like to read A Handbook of Luck.   The novel follows Garcia’s basic stylistic technique of bouncing between characters though in this case, the years go by quickly and chronologically and she decides this time (as with Monkey Hunting) to tell her story in the past tense.   Garcia has a brilliantly sharp eye for detail but the details in this novel just sit there – something someone sees, hears, tastes or feels and that’s it.  It’s too frustrating to put them all together, search for a motif, a connection.  There isn’t any.  Some creative writing teacher at one point rightly emphasized the need for details and images but where are the motives for metaphor (to quote Wallace Stevens) in this book?  Marta’s birds are given pages of detail – their names, foods, feathers and care, but how this young woman from El Salvador illegally arrived in LA is barely mentioned.  She has “injured” herself somehow in the trip – as if such a phrase could provoke a reader’s reaction and yet this mysterious injury never means anything in the long run.  Neither do the birds as far I can tell – though I could be wrong since birds are everywhere, as is the color “blue.”   The difficulty is that the text doesn’t deserve intense explication because the stories and people don’t really matter to the reader.  The three main characters: Marta from El Salvador, Enrique the Magician’s son and Leila, the young Persian woman will occupy much of the novel, but they are surrounded by ghosts (blatantly stereotypical sexists like Leila’s husband, incomprehensible phantoms like Marta’s tree dwelling brother, or bizarre caricatures like Fernando Florit whose impossible magic only Gandalf could outdo).  The three main people come into focus for a page or two and then we are swirled back into the details of pointless bits and pieces of unconnected life across three countries, waiting patiently to circle back (in two or three or four year gaps) to the fleeting relationships that we try to care about, the minor connections between protagonists.  What we are told is dull, what we want to know is mentioned in quick asides, in passing, usually as something that has happened years before.   Lonely Enrique meets a young Cuban girl on a beach in Jamaica, and we learn (15 pages, and two years later) that he has married her and had children, lives in the suburbs and is bored.  So are we.  Like most people in the novel, this Cuban woman is an unknowable phantom.



When things happen in the novel – they are either extremely unusual (bizarre in most cases) or so mundane you have to wonder why such events merit attention at all in this already thin little book.  We hear that a woman drowns in an aquarium when lightning strikes, that a hundred doomed monkeys are freed when the truck carrying them to a research lab crashes in the desert, that people fight with stingrays and giant squids, and we suffer through numerous bloody bombings and suicides and deaths from disease – all supposedly important but the reader can never satisfactorily figure out why.  Nearly every character mentioned, no matter how flat and irrelevant they are to the central narratives of the three major people is inflicted with some horrific random past ordeal, those things presumably we need a “Handbook of Luck” to avoid.  Still, as the number of problems increases, the reader has to become immune to caring; the fleeting references to car crashes and beatings, murders and deprivations simply add up, one after another.  I suppose this all has to do with the notion of the randomness of life, the impossibility of understanding how “luck,” works, the idea that calculation and planning and figuring out the odds (especially for Enrique) will never suffice.  But such an obvious theme can’t really justify the stories.  One glance at a local newspaper teaches the same thing, and with an internet search or two, any one factual story can be followed and understood in ways the people in Garcia’s novel cannot be.  There are vague general connections between characters, and brief connecting images – references to flowers or birds or foods – that slide from one person’s segment into another, but time passes so quickly that we are almost instantly distanced from these characters, losing interest and sight of them, rising higher and higher above and away from them in our Googled perspective.   In the end, we long for the sarcastic wit and language of a Pilar Puente to hold the thing together.  There are no real "puentes" (bridges) here to keep the characters’ lives meaningful for us, no way to understand the relationships.  We’ve read the words and seen glimpses of people, been given allusions to Civil War in El Salvador, the Iranian revolution and gamblers in Las Vegas, but it isn’t enough to make a meaningful impression. 


One hopes that Cristina Garcia will go back to work on a riskier novel in the near future.  One where she again finds a narrative voice as genuine and as humorous as Pilar’s, a set of complicated people as interesting as those in Dreaming in Cuban, and where she forces readers again to sympathize with them.  Readers of Latino fiction expect a lot from this major writer, and certainly deserve a lot more than A Handbook to Luck provides. 



Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie


Last Updated: July 06, 2009