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‘Handbook for an Unpredictable Life’

By Rosie Perez

Terri Schlichenmeyer | 3/21/2014, midnight

Having braces apparently wasn’t bad enough.

You hated your tin grin, but that wasn’t as demoralizing as acne, which was nothing compared to hormones, which wasn’t as annoying as untamable hair, which was minimal compared to your teenage self-esteem—which hovered around 5 on a 1-to-50 scale.

Still, you overcame, lived through it, and here you are. And in the new book Handbook for an Unpredictable Life by Rosie Perez, (c.2014, Crown Archetype, $26.00 / $30.00 Canada, 322 pages) you’ll read about another survivor.

Lydia Perez was an up-and-coming singer in Puerto Rico when her much-older husband forced her to quit before moving her and their children to New York City. Unhappy and restless, she fatefully met Ismael Serrano, a married ladies’ man who wanted to date her sister, but Lydia stole him away, and months later, pregnant, she accused him of cheating (again), waved a gun at him, and he (understandably) left.

A week after giving birth, Lydia visited her new daughter’s aunt and vanished, leaving baby Rosie there for the next three years.

For Rosie Perez, her Tia’s home was the perfect place to live. Tia had three daughters who doted on their little cousin and encouraged her to dance and sing. Perez remembers being safe, clean, and loved.

And then her mother—who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia—returned. Without warning, Lydia reclaimed Perez and turned her over to “the Home.” At age three, Perez was “the ‘property’ of the Catholic Church.”

Immediately, she was given chores she didn’t understand and rules that were strictly enforced. She found a friend and learned that crying resulted in swift punishment. Fortunately she encountered some kindness from a few of the nuns who were tasked with caring for and teaching her.

Perez bounced between her mother’s abuse, her Tia’s apartment, houses of Home volunteers, friends’ bedrooms, and a group home with dizzying infrequency—which made her grow angry and depressed.

She was nearly molested. She watched beloved family members turn to drugs. She lost her best friend. And finally, at age 14, Perez found her permanent home again.

I always start celebrity memoirs with a little trepidation. Too many times, in my experience, they’re just vehicles for bragging and name-dropping. Happily, that’s (mostly) not the case here. To quote author Rosie Perez, “Yay!”

Though there is some celeb-spotting in Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Perez doesn’t focus solely on career-fueled celebrity-stroking here. Instead, this book consists largely of her unique emotional-rags-to-riches tale of childhood and adolescence, abuse and struggle. Lesser writers might have treated the harshness she endured with poor-me maudlinism, but this memoir is charming and spirited.

Did I mention that Perez is a funny writer, too? Yes she is, which softens the outrage of this triumphantly forgiving story and turns it into a don’t-miss. If you’re a celebrity watcher or you just love a good autobiography, grab Handbook for an Unpredictable Life and brace yourself…