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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the late 60s, three teenagers from around the globe are making their way in the world: Enrique Florit, from Cuba, living in southern California with his flamboyant magician father; Marta Claros, getting by in the slums of San Salvador; Leila Rezvani, a well-to-do surgeon's daughter in Tehran. We follow them through the years, surviving war, disillusionment, and love, as their lives and paths intersect. With its cast of vividly drawn characters, its graceful movement through time, and the psychological shifts between childhood and adulthood, A Handbook to Luck is a beautiful, elegiac, and deeply emotional novel by beloved storyteller Cristina García.

Excerpt

Enrique Florit

Enrique Florit climbed the stairs to the roof of his apartment building, which was eye level with the top of the street's jacaranda trees. It had rained that afternoon and dark puddles stained the cement and the peeling tar paper. When Enrique opened the doors of the wire-mesh cages, the doves fluttered to his shoulders and outstretched arms. Five months ago, he and his father had bought the doves and dyed their feathers a rainbow of pastels. Now Enrique poured their daily seed, freshened their water, listened to the low blue murmurings in their throats.

His father had introduced the doves into his act on New Year's Eve. He performed every other weekend at a cocktail lounge in Marina del Rey and needed the doves to compete with the top-billed magician's unicycle-riding parrot. Papi tried to upstage the parrot by having his doves ride a battery-operated motorcycle across a tiny tightrope. Enrique attended the New Year's Eve show. The doves performed unpredictably, sometimes riding on cue, sometimes cooing indifferently from the rim of his father's top hat. A couple flew out of the room altogether.

Yet each time Papi strode across the stage in his tuxedo and plum-colored velvet cape, Enrique's heart rose an inch in his chest. He overheard a woman with teased-up hair say to her table companions: Ooooh, he looks just like that Ricky Ricardo! In California, nobody heard much about Cuba except for Ricky Ricardo, the hijackings to Havana, and, of course, El Comandante himself.

Enrique coaxed the doves back into their cages one by one. The sunset reddened the hovering dust. A propeller plane took off from the airport to the south. It puttered high over the ocean before turning toward land. During their first months in Los Angeles, Papi had kept a suitcase packed in case they needed to return to Cuba in a hurry. He listened to the Spanish-language radio stations and played boleros every night before bed. He read El Diario for any news of El Comandante's fall and kept their clocks three hours ahead, on Havana time. After a while they grew accustomed to waiting.

Their apartment on Seventeenth Street looked out over an alley dominated by an unruly bougainvillea. They were only a mile from the beach, and the ocean air mildewed their walls and linoleum floors. Enrique liked to go to the Santa Monica pier on his skateboard and watch the Ferris wheel and the Mexicans with their fishing rods and empty, hopeful buckets. Papi slept in their one bedroom and Enrique curled up on the living room couch at night. Mamá's coral rosary hung on a nail over the television, next to a circus poster from Varadero. In the poster, an elephant with a jeweled headdress stood on its hind legs warily eyeing the ringmaster. An orange tiger roared in the background.

Enrique shared the bedroom's cramped closet with his father. Papi's frayed tuxedos were hung up neatly, massive and forlorn looking when emptied of his ample flesh. His shoes looked equally despondent, parked in a double row by Enrique's extra pair of sneakers. Only the white ruffled shirts, starched and at attention, gave off an optimistic air.

Once Papi had been famous throughout the Caribbean. He'd performed regularly in the Dominican Republic and Panama and as far south as coastal Colombia. El Mago Gallego. That was his stage name then. Of course, this was long before Enrique's mother died, long before the Cuban Revolution soured, long before they left their house in Cárdenas with its marble floors and its ceiling-to-floor shutters and the speckled goose named Pato who guarded their yard.

When Mamá was still alive, Enrique, in embroidered Chinese pajamas and pretending to water a slowly growing sunflower, sometimes joined his parents on stage. For a year after she died, Enrique barely spoke. He stayed in his Tía Adela's bedroom, where the fierce light shone through the curtains and the bedspread was embroidered with hummingbirds. Outside her window, bunches of bananas ripened before his eyes.

His aunt put a little bell by his bed so that Enrique could summon her whenever he wanted. She brought him horchata and miniature cakes with pineapple jam. She fussed over him, too, layering on extra sweaters and a woolen scarf to keep him warm. Tía Adela believed that everything wrong with the body could be treated with heat. In the mornings Enrique woke up breathless and sputtering, convinced that he was drowning. His aunt took him to see Dr. Ignacio Sebrango, a pulmonary specialist with carbuncled arms, who said that Enrique's condition was psychological and had nothing to do with the excellent health of his lungs.

Enrique's biggest fear was that he might forget his mother altogether. She'd died when he was six and that was three whole years ago. He replayed memories of her over and over again until they seemed more like an old movie than anything real. Everyone had told him that he was the spitting image of Mamá. They both had small frames and fine black hair and skin the color of cinnamon. Only his eyes, a hazel bordering on blue, were like his father's.

Sometimes Enrique played with his mother's engraved silver bracelet, which he'd snuck out of Cuba in his travel satchel, or tossed it on one of her empty perfume bottles like a carnival game. Or he unfolded her fan from Panama, meticulously painted with an image of the Indian goddess of love. There were a few photographs, too. In his most treasured one, Mamá sat on their veranda in the shade of an acacia reading A Passage to India, her favorite book. Most of all Enrique missed her scent, a gentle mixture of jasmine and sweat.

There was leftover Chinese food and four heads of wilted lettuce in the refrigerator, remnants of Papi's brief attempt to improve their diet. Enrique grabbed the carton of milk and poured himself a glass. Then he sat at the kitchen table and tried to make sense of his social studies homework. He was confused by the variety of North American Indian tribes. The history of Cuba's Indians was simple in contrast: once there were Taínos; now there were none. Enrique suspected that his fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Wonder, deliberately mispronounced his name. He made "Florit" sound like some kind of tropical fungus.

After a year and a half in Los Angeles, Enrique spoke English perfectly. His mother, who'd grown up in Panama and was the daughter of the country's water commissioner, had taught Enrique the little English she knew. This gave him an advantage over his father but it didn't account for Papi's terrible trouble with the language. His father tortured each sentence, forcing English into the rapid staccato of Cuban Spanish. He called things he and she, instead of it, and pronounced his j's like y's. His vocabulary was good but his speed and pronunciation made it impossible for anyone to understand him.

Papi blamed his accent for stalling his career. A magician's sleight of hand, he told Enrique, was entirely dependent on his ability to focus an audience's attention. If people couldn't understand what he was saying--"Speak English!" some drunk invariably shouted during his performances--how could they be manipulated? Papi said that magic was largely a matter of making ordinary things appear extraordinary with a touch of smoke and illusion.

Enrique wished they had stayed in Miami with the other Cubans. At least his father could have performed for them in Spanish, not that the exiles were in any mood for magic these days. Their idea of entertainment would be seeing El Comandante hanging from a Havana lamppost. But everybody had told them that California was the place to go for a career in show business. Papi had begged him to join his magic act again but Enrique had refused. He comforted himself by imagining Mamá watching over his life from the sidelines, urging him to say no.

Lately, his father talked about moving to Las Vegas. He knew Cubans from the casinos back home who were working on the Strip as pit bosses, blackjack dealers, nightclub managers. Papi was also acquainted with a few mobsters who'd moved their gambling operations there after the Cubans kicked them out of Havana. Las Vegas was growing fast, he said, and soon would become the world capital of magic. Where else could a man start the day with fifty dollars in his pocket and end up a millionaire by nightfall?

Enrique turned on the television, forcing the thick knob from one station to the next. There were Abbott and Costello reruns on Channel 9, but he wasn't interested. They only made him laugh when he was sick. He had a slight cough and his neck ached. If he was lucky, he might catch the flu and get to stay home from school for a week. His ribs hurt after a scuffle in the playground. No big deal, just the usual uneven swap of punches with the bully from Ocean Park. It wasn't easy being the new kid (almost everybody else had known each other since kindergarten), and dark-skinned, and the second-shortest boy in the class.

The six o'clock news didn't change much. Whenever Enrique saw President Johnson on television, he remembered the American tourists who used to go to Varadero Beach before the revolution and rudely called everyone "boy." Every day more U.S. soldiers were being killed in Vietnam, fighting the Communists. Enrique lost track of how many thousands so far. Why weren't the Americans fighting the Communists in Cuba? What was the difference? And whatever had happened to the men who'd fought in the Bay of Pigs? Why didn't he hear about them? Enrique was suspicious of facts. As far as he could tell, nobody could be sure of anything except numbers, or something you could hold in your own two hands.

His paternal grandparents and his aunt had remained in Cuba by choice. Abuelo Arturo still strolled down Avenida Echeverría in his waistcoat and long-chained pocket watch and Abuela Carmen rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage, joining her friends for guayaba pastries on the tiled terrace of La Dominica Hotel. His Tía Adela managed to scrape by knitting baby blankets from old wool. They stayed in Cuba despite the shortages, despite the threat of another yanqui invasion, despite the hurricanes and the blackouts and the clashes with intolerant neighbors because for them, Communism or not, it was still home.

At school Enrique's best friend was a Japanese boy named Shuntaro, taller than him by an inch and with the same lanky hair. They spent Saturday afternoons at his grandparents' nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard, with its damp earth smells and its sleeping, lovestruck lily bulbs. The nursery specialized in bonsai—the rear greenhouse was devoted to them—and people came from all over California to buy their minuscule junipers and elms. This year they were growing a perfect dwarf pomegranate tree with golf ball-sized fruit.

Shuntaro's grandparents listened politely to Papi's stories about magic. Enrique suspected they didn't understand a word he said. His father told them—looking around to include any customers within earshot—that magic was a noble, perilous profession. In the past magicians had been condemned as witches, sorcerers, and devil worshipers and frequently put to death. Only in the last hundred years had professional magicians been able to work without fear of persecution.

Papi's hero was Robert-Houdin, the French magician who'd inspired Houdini to adapt his name for the stage. In the 1850s, Robert-Houdin was sent by his government to calm the natives of Algeria with his wondrous feats. He did many things to impress the Arabs, including devising a chest too heavy for the strongest of them to lift and disappearing a young Moor from under a large cloth cone. By the time he'd completed his tricks, the Arab chiefs had surrendered, pledging their loyalty to France.

According to Papi, El Comandante had similarly fooled the Cuban people. After his victory march across the island, thousands of supporters gathered in the capital to celebrate. During El Comandante's speech—a deceptive concoction of propaganda and hope, Papi scoffed—top magicians were paid to send trained doves to fly over the crowd. When one of the doves landed dramatically on El Comandante's shoulder during the climax of his speech, the santeros and their followers took this as a sign that he was destined to rule Cuba.

To Fernando Florit, everything was connected to magic. When Enrique showed him his history report on Benjamin Franklin, Papi suggested adding a little-known fact to the biography of the inventor. In Franklin's day, he said, the famous illusionist Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen had devised an automated chess player that took on all challengers. "In 1783," Papi crowed, "Benjamin Franklin played against the machine and lost!"

Enrique opened the kitchen window and let in a woolly moth bumping up against the pane. A neighbor, cigarette dangling, was testing the engine of his big-finned '57 Cadillac, filling the alley with exhaust fumes. This was a nightly ritual, annoying to everyone in the building except Enrique, who found it oddly soothing. He set the table, heated the kung pao chicken, and put rice to boil, welcoming the familiar starchy smell. Then he finished studying for his vocabulary test and waited for his father to come home.



Fernando Florit burst through the front door just after nine o'clock with a box of chocolate éclairs and a pink silk scarf around his neck. He entered every room in the same way, swept in like a run of heat, overwhelming everything. Their cups and dishes, bought on sale at the five-and-dime, trembled in the cupboard. He scooped up Enrique and planted a rubbery kiss on his forehead. Then he took his place at the kitchen table. Enrique heaped the steaming Chinese food onto his father's plate alongside the fresh rice.

Their ritual never changed. They ate first, talked later. No matter how hungry he was, Enrique waited to eat until his father came home. It was two hours past their usual dinnertime and Papi was starving. He took pride in sharing a meal, no matter how modest, with his son every night. Some days it was the only time they saw each other. Papi was very busy: auditioning, rehearsing, recruiting talent agents, battling the competition, and, occasionally, performing.

Enrique studied his father across the table as if he were a natural phenomenon, a geyser, perhaps, or an erupting volcano. At school, Mr. Wonder was teaching science segments on geology and meteorology and Enrique couldn't help comparing Papi to one of the many violent assaults on the earth's crust. He imagined his father causing earthquakes, tsunamis, category 5 hurricanes. Enrique was more like his mother, quiet and thoughtful, preferring to read or work on an interesting math problem. He did advanced algebra and trigonometry for fun. It pleased him to think that mathematicians everywhere spoke the same language.


From the Hardcover edition.
Cristina García|Author Q&A

About Cristina García

Cristina García - A Handbook to Luck
Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter.

Author Q&A

Q: A HANDBOOK TO LUCK ranges more widely from Cuba than some of your previous books. Why did you choose to do this at this point in your writing career? In what other ways does HANDBOOK differ from your previous novels?
A:
I spent a large part of the last fifteen years living in Los Angeles, which one writer intriguingly called ‘The Capital of the Third World.’ It’s a city of immigrants with literally millions of stories of dislocation and adaptation, tragedy and dramatic beatings of the odds. It’s an irresistible place for a writer. I’d dedicated myself in my first three novels to telling the story of Cuba and its various Cuban migrations from different viewpoints and time frames. But it was time for me to move on. I woke up one morning on the edge of the Pacific and suddenly discovered that there were stories all around me. It was a matter of choosing what I wanted to focus on, of finding just the right characters to speak to these preoccupations.

Q: Where did the idea for A HANDBOOK TO LUCK come from?
A:
When my daughter was little, I hired a babysitter to take care of her for a few hours a day. She was from El Salvador and every morning she came, it grew harder and harder for me to go to work. Her stories were that incredible. She could be watering the lawn or sweeping the kitchen and ask quietly: “Did I ever tell you the time I shot my first husband in the foot?” What!? My jaw would drop and I would stop whatever I was doing or intending to do and listen. Her storytelling went on for years! Well, this woman is the inspiration for my Marta character. She hasn't worked for me for ten years but we remain close friends and I am the godmother to her daughter. And I still listen to her stories.

Q: The novel progresses from the year 1968 to 1987. Why did you choose this time period as your setting?
A:
The time period roughly mirrors my own coming-of-age years and I felt confident describing a lot of what happened then. I have a political and cultural context for those years–a far cry from my last novel, MONKEY HUNTING, which was largely set in colonial Cuba.

Q: The main characters in A HANDBOOK TO LUCK are an impoverished girl from San Salvador, a privileged girl from Tehran, and a boy originally from Cuba who lives in Southern California and Las Vegas as a child. You are from Cuba and live in California, but was it hard to imagine the landscapes of Tehran and San Salvador?
A:
I felt that I needed to go to El Salvador and Iran to do this novel justice. I couldn’t get a visa to go to Iran (I tried three times) but I managed to spend a couple of weeks in El Salvador, mostly traveling around with my daughter on the back of a flatbed truck with my old babysitter and her daughter. We visited her family all over the country, and listened, listened, listened. Many people talked to me about the civil war, something which is not spoken of much there, at least not openly. It’s almost as if there’s been an unspoken collective amnesia to avoid discussing unpleasant memories. But the trauma of the war lives on in everyone. In the book, I give the act of witnessing the war’s atrocities to Evaristo, Marta’s brother, who spends most of his life living in trees.

Q: The three main characters live in California in some point in the novel. Did you choose this state because you are familiar with it, or do you think it’s more of a melting pot than other states?
A:
California is immigration central for the United States; Los Angeles, in particular. There are more Vietnamese living in L.A. than any other place in the world outside their home country. The same is true for Salvadorans and Koreans and Mexicans and Japanese–you name it. My daughter and I have done a lot of foreign travel, but we’ve crossed as many cultural boundaries living in Los Angeles as we have crossing international date lines. “What country do you want to visit today?” I might ask her on any given Saturday and we could very well find ourselves immersed for the afternoon in East L.A. or Koreatown. There are extraordinary cultural opportunities in L.A. that most people don’t appreciate or take advantage of, to their detriment.

Q: Your novel explores the notion of luck and circumstance. Why did you decide to focus on this?
A:
Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by notions of luck and fate, coincidence and destiny and chance. Was this meant to be? Do good things always emerge from bad, as my mother would tell me? How will my life be different if I turn left this minute instead of right? I was happily plagued by questions like this all the time, and they followed me into adulthood. To my mind, there is nothing more fraught with peril and luck (good and bad) than migration. In A HANDBOOK TO LUCK, I tried to write a story that combined my interests and obsessions on these themes.

Q: All of the characters in A HANDBOOK TO LUCK seem to outgrow their traditional family backgrounds and move on to a more modern, American life. How true do you think this is to the typical immigrant experience?
A:
Yes, my characters do outgrow their traditions and try hard to adapt to life in the United States. I’ve certainly seen this in almost every immigrant community I’m familiar with. But the price is often high and immigrants may end up feeling like they don’t belong anywhere–not back home, not in their adopted country. Then memory goes to work on the past, as it always does, distorting it, selecting incidents, and revising history. That’s the basic recipe for nostalgia, isn’t it? Every immigrant I know struggles to find a balance between the present and the past, between the preservation of his or her traditions and language and becoming culturally fluent in their new surroundings.

Q: You were born in Havana and raised in the United States. How does your experience inform your characters?
A:
As an immigrant myself, I can speak to the cultural duality that comes from “living on the hyphen,” as another Cuban writer put it. I know what it’s like to be both a participant and an observer in a new culture, to be an insider and an outsider at the same time. It made for many uncomfortable moments when I was growing up but now I see it as an incredibly privileged place from which to write.

Q: What’s next for you?
A:
I’ve started a new novel tentatively titled The Lady Matador’s Hotel, which is set, for the most part, in a luxury hotel in Central America ten years after the end of its civil war (a thinly-disguised Guatemala). It features a widely divergent cast including my main character, Suki Palacios, a female matador of Mexican-Japanese descent who grew up in Los Angeles. She’s in town to participate in the first all-women bullfighting competition in the Americas. And that’s only a sliver of the story.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Graceful. . . . Beautiful. . . . Provocative.”—USA Today “Garcia writes with humor, tenderness and an intuitive sense of how ordinary people weather fortune's turns. If you long for a 'handbook' that reveals how ordinary people become extraordinary, you are in luck.”—New York Daily News “A magically lyrical meditation on life and human dreams . . . García [is] a poet of imagery and metaphor.” —Elle“Pitch-perfect . . .. García is still drawn to describe the richness and variety of the immigrant experience. . . . [But] 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.” —Chicago Tribune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Graceful. . . . Beautiful. . . . Provocative.”
USA Today

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Cristina García's bittersweet, multilayered new novel, A Handbook to Luck. Spanning three countries and two decades, the book tells the story of three lives whose serendipitous intertwining may testify to the sheer randomness of the universe or to some underlying pattern that might be called probability or fate or maybe luck, the thing gamblers pray to. Alongside its accounts of love and parting, exile and homecoming, crushing self-sacrifice and sudden, unexpected joy, the novel contains a floating symposium on the nature of luck—its relation to skill and virtue, whether it can be controlled or at least helped along; whether it is stronger than human self-destructiveness and stupidity, and whether we make it or it makes us.

About the Guide

In the late 1960s, Enrique Florit is a dutiful boy living in Southern California with his father, a flamboyant magician who, when he isn't chasing down a career break or a pair of shapely legs, is pining for their native Cuba and the young wife who died bizarrely during their act. Marta Claros is a ragged girl peddling used clothing in the streets of San Salvador, having dropped out of school to help her mother and the brother she adores. In Tehran, Leila Rezvani is getting ready to begin her studies at an exclusive Swiss boarding school, in accordance to her mother's plans for her entry into the upper tiers of Iranian society. Those plans also include having her nose fixed by an equally exclusive plastic surgeon.

In the years to come, Enrique will discover an aptitude for math that could have earned him a place at any college he wanted. Instead, he will use his gift to pay off his father's gambling debts. He will be offered a chance at love but prove too fearful to seize it, contenting himself with a tattoo in Persian script and a decade of wistful fantasies. As San Salvador slides down the chute of state terror and civil war, Marta literally shoots her way out of a bad marriage, then joins the tide of refugees heading for the U.S., where she goes from working on a sweatshop floor to marrying her boss. She, too, will be granted an unexpected chance at happiness—and grab hold of it with all her might. Leila will gain a brief, intoxicating taste of freedom through Enrique and then soberly return to Iran—which has traded the corrupt dictatorship of the Shah for the austere one of the ayatollahs—and a loveless union with a man from her class.

Dizzyingly eventful, electric with feeling, and bursting with the vitality of its characters, A Handbook to Luck is a magnificent novel that will be read—and talked about—for a long time to come. This guide will help you get started.

About the Author

Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. She is the author of three previous novels and editor of two anthologies. Her novel Dreaming in Cuban was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in California's Napa Valley with her daughter and husband.

Discussion Guides

1. How does Garcia distinguish her novel's settings and locate the reader in them? What details characterize Enrique's Las Vegas, Marta's San Salvador, and Leila's Tehran? In what ways are the characters matched to their settings? Las Vegas, for example, is the logical destination for someone like Fernando, but how does growing up there shape his son? How does life on the streets of San Salvador prepare Marta for her future? In what ways does Leila remain figuratively trapped in the garden where we first see her?

2. Along with the details that set the novel's respective worlds apart, there are some that occur in all of them: moths, for instance. Note the ways that moths appear in the three stories. Is this simply coincidence, or might Garcia be sending a signal to the reader, and what might that signal be? What other images and motifs figure in all three narratives, and to what effect?

3. Compare the ways the three protagonists spend their thirteenth birthdays. What is the effect of these parallel scenes? Where else in the novel does Garcia show her characters unknowingly doing the same thing—or experiencing the same milestone—at the same time? How does such synchronicity function structurally within the novel, and how does it reinforce the theme of luck?

4. Almost everyone in A Handbook to Luck is an immigrant of one kind or another: Enrique and his father from Cuba, Marta from El Salvador, and Leila, briefly, from Iran. Discuss the theme of immigration in the novel. What motivates García's characters to leave their native countries? In what ways do they remain attached to them? What regrets do they have about leaving? Which of them adapts successfully to life in the U.S. and which of them fails, and for what reasons? On the basis of their experience, what qualities might be essential for an immigrant?

5. Even as a child, Enrique is conscious of his responsibility to the adults in his life, both to his childlike father and his dead mother, whom he is fearful of forgetting. How do these loyalties shape the rest of his life? Which of the other characters has a similar loyalty, and what are its results? How does the old-world value of loyalty equip them for survival in the more fluid, atomized society of the U.S.?

6. What is the significance of Fernando Florit's profession? Discuss the connotations of magic as art form, as performance, as fraud, and as a genuine commerce in mystery. At what points in the book is Fernando merely a talented entertainer, and at what points do his tricks seem truly inexplicable? What significance do you see in the manner of his death, following a “death-defying” feat—catching a bullet in his teeth—that he has performed dozens of times before but that for once is actually deadly? In what ways does Fernando's death echo that of his wife many years before? Do you have any speculations about the identity of the strange intruder who appears at his funeral?

7. Although his father grooms him to become his assistant, Enrique eschews magic for mathematics, which he later applies at the card table. How is gambling related to magic? Enrique views his success at poker as a product of skill. “Gambling is a branch of mathematics,” he tells Leila [p. 114]. But he's also haunted by “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” [p. 71]. Which view of luck is borne out by subsequent events in his life? By the lives of the other characters? What do you make of the fact that Leila refuses to elope with Enrique because “the odds of them lasting weren't good” [p. 165]?

8. As a young girl, Marta Claros longs to read for the sheer pleasure of stories. As a young woman, she yearns for a baby. To what extent do these desires inform the choices she makes later in life? In what ways do they seem connected to things she doesn't choose—that is, to things that just happen to her? Are the novel's other characters driven by similar desires? To what extent do they “make their fortunes,” go out and get what they want? To what extent are they beneficiaries of luck or, alternatively, its victims?

9. Discuss Marta's relationship with her brother Evaristo. What might be the significance of his decision to live in a tree? Is his increasing madness simply an illness or perhaps a logical consequence of witnessing the brutality of life in his country? Might it also be a strategy for surviving it? What might be the point of Evaristo's internal monologues? How might they complement or complete the other narratives? What is the possible significance of his repeated references to birds and the color blue?

10. In what ways does Leila's relationship with her brother parallel Marta's with Evaristo? Although in future years she never seems to think about the incident in Hosein's bedroom, might it cast a shadow over her life? How does her relationship with her mother and father mirror themes in Enrique's and Marta's narratives? What role does her class play in her life's subsequent pattern? In what ways does Leila's fate recall the stories Marta watches on the soap opera Pobre Gente, whose characters aren't poor but “rich people whom you grew to feel sorry for because they were always so unhappy” [p. 197]?

11. Of all the characters in this novel, Marta may travel the farthest from her origins, but by its end Leila seems the most transformed in terms of character, having gone from a lively, free-spirited young woman to a cowed and prematurely aged prisoner of an abusive husband and a soul-crushing regime. What do you think accounts for her transformation?

12. In what ways is A Handbook to Luck a novel about history, as any novel about immigrants must be? To what extent are its characters' lives historically determined? Note that history seems most insistent in the book's foreign scenes-in Cuba, El Salvador, and Iran. Is one implication of this that America is a place exempt from history? How does history intrude into the novel's American sections as well?

13. As she prepares to have her son sworn in as a citizen of the United States, Marta imagines the two of them shouting, “We belong here!” [p. 240]. What does it mean to belong in this novel—to a place, to a family, to oneself? Is belonging always something desirable, since for some characters it means self-denial and imprisonment? How does Garcia suggest that belonging can be reconciled with freedom?

14. What is the possible significance of the novel's penultimate scene, the near-drowning of Marta's son. What earlier scenes does it recall? And why does Marta, who has always had trouble with swimming lessons, plunge into the water and command José Antonio, “Watch me”?

Suggested Readings

Monica Ali, Brick Lane; Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life; Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote; Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend; Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran; Caryl Philips, Dancing in the Dark; Henry Roth, Call It Sleep; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Zadie Smith, White Teeth.

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