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Sunday, May 20th, 2007
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A Handbook to Luck


Romp and Circumstance

A review by Rosie Molinary

We call the world small as we navigate our technology-rich, travel-dense lives. A ping in the email inbox signals an old friend who has found you on the Internet; a stranger in the airplane seat next to you lived next door to your sister at college. Our lives don't just touch each other's, the sensation of a brushed shoulder in a train station staying with us later. Our lives influence each other's, pressing us toward situations that some might see as good luck or bad luck, but what Leila in García's novel would insist is simply the fate written indelibly on our foreheads at birth.

Styled in juxtaposed narratives of three children initially living thousands of miles apart, A Handbook to Luck follows them through 20 years as they mine the circumstances presented to them, attempt to cross the emotional and physical borders before them, and ultimately choose paths that bring them to intersect and detach in heartrending and soaring ways.

The book opens in 1968, when Enrique is 9. His greatest fear is forgetting the mother who died in front of his eyes as she assisted his magician-father Fernando with a stage trick. Grief-stricken, father and son flee Cuba for the United States where his father's flamboyant magic act might earn him fame and fortune. If Fernando is razzle-dazzle, Enrique is studied. He masters poker at 13, scores an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, and lands admission to MIT and the chance to start over without his father's shadow casting a long and heavy darkness over him. But despite Enrique's talents, his desires, his plans, he can't escape the allure of the casinos and the duty he feels to ease his father's misfortunes.

Two years later, across the globe in Tehran, Leila Rezvani, a preteen, watches her brother take his last breaths, sharing with him a secret that will not fade away. Her mother forces Leila into a life she never wanted: rhinoplasty, boarding school and, ultimately, a marriage bound by appearances rather than love. The condolence prize is a college education in California. And so, as she ages and fulfills her mother's expectations, there is something else that won't fade away -- the nights she spent with Enrique and the fragile love she shaped with him before reading the writing on her forehead.

Meanwhile, Marta Claros roams the streets of San Salvador in the late '60s as a 9-year-old vendor and provides for her brother, who lives in a tree and bears the scars of what he witnesses in the darkness of night as San Salvador falls victim to guardias without conscience. A daring escape from an abusive husband takes her to the United States where a new life, a new Marta, awaits her. In a country where the American Dream is the teaser, she starts over, embracing parts of herself that could only be born absent of familial expectation and obligation. Slowly, almost surprising herself, she becomes self-sufficient, a workplace advocate and a woman invested in saving herself. When she meets Enrique and is given the opportunity to fill a void in her life, luck, fate or maybe the angels grant her the ultimate gift before almost taking it away again.

A Handbook to Luck shines with vulnerable characters, poetic language and poignant epiphanies that allow each character to transcend the oppression and exile that have been placed around their necks like a tight noose, if only for a moment. The question that lingers after the journeys of our three protagonists is how we find solace and freedom in our own lives when luck -- good or bad -- spins what we imagined into what we cannot fathom or what we did not dare to dream.

Rosie Molinary is the author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image and Growing Up Latina (Seal Press, 2007).

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