As any great gambler knows, victory does not come without its risks; those willing to act only on a sure thing may fare reasonably well, but the biggest winnings will always go to those who are unafraid to take chances.
The same goes for writing – great authors tackle great themes and do not shy away from those which will be difficult or complicated to render. The more you are willing to bet, the bigger your payoff will eventually be.
Cristina Garcia, in her third book “A Handbook to Luck” takes this advice to heart. She attempts to wrestle with theme after titanic theme – love, magic, ethnicity, chance, oppression, familial bonds and countless others are at various times engaged – moving from one to another without bothering to get a handle on any of them. Though her ambition is admirable, Garcia’s execution is not, as she most frequently leaves the reader feeling lost, confused and often slightly bored.
“A Handbook to Luck” charts the trajectories of three separate but subtly linked lives. Enrique Florit, son of a marginally famous Cuban magician, is a Las Vegas phenom with the poker skills of Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman”.
Marta Claros, after fleeing an abusive husband and oppressive government in El Salvador, longs for motherhood in Los Angeles. Leila Resvani, daughter of a prosperous Iranian family, is a promising young, female engineer with an uncertain future at home in Iran. Their stories, as the book progresses, occasionally
and haphazardly intertwine, seemingly
Though Garcia almost ceaselessly hints that her characters will have to struggle in navigating the vagaries of luck and chance, their stories for the most part are unremarkably mundane. When Lady Luck does rear her head, it is usually just to provide an excuse for otherwise unbelievable plot twists that would seem out of place even in an episode of “24.”
Nevertheless, Garcia does not hesitate to berate the reader with didactic aphorisms she clearly hopes to see springing up in MySpace profiles.
“He thought of how the slightest mistake
could kill a person,” Garcia writes during
one of Enrique’s father’s many trips to the hospital. “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.”
It is not as if Cristina Garcia is in any way a poor writer, in fact, “A Handbook to Luck” is dotted with occasional moments of particularly deep insight. The problem lies in the fact that these moments are buried deeply within pages upon pages of dull detail, all embedded within a plot that spins its wheels at a constantly high speed without ever really going anywhere.
The book, overall, is no worse than many that frequently grace the bestseller lists. It is simply that, lacking originality, “A Handbook to Luck” is without anything else to really recommend it.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.