The Lucky Ones

By Julianne Pachico ’08 (Spiegel & Grau, 2017)

Reviewed by Megan Labrise ’04
The Lucky Ones book cover

Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones is an incandescent exploration of Colombia’s legacy of violence. The critically acclaimed literary fiction debut spans two decades in the lives of a group of girls who attend a prestigious international private school in Cali, Colombia, and grows to encompass the narratives of attendant personnel: their parents, their teachers, their maids, their pets.

In 1993, the girls are elementary schoolers catching colorful candies that rain down at an especially wealthy classmate’s country party. These bright girls are in many ways insulated from the war waging between the government and guerrillas (FARC, ELN), paramilitaries, and crime syndicates. Yet they’re old enough to retain some brutal facts.

“Later, filling her tray with french fries, Mariela says that she doesn’t care that Katrina’s father was killed by the Americans,” Pachico writes in “Siberian Tiger Park.” “No, she isn’t sorry one bit. Men like him deserve it. Wait, you didn’t know about him? Oh, everybody knew. Are you saying you didn’t know? He got gunned down by the CIA, just like Escobar, running for his life on the rooftop.”

Pachico was raised in Cali by agricultural social scientist parents working in international development—one British, one American. This rarefied upbringing became the basis for The Lucky Ones, a book with a dual identity: In the United States, it’s being marketed as a novel (Spiegel & Grau). In the United Kingdom, it’s sold as a short story collection (Faber & Faber).

Regardless of your side of the divide, each of the book’s 11 chapters ably functions as a stand-alone story—as did “Honey Bunny,” the fiction pick in the November 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker.

By 2008, Pachico’s girls are college age—including the one they called “La Flaca,” who left Cali for the U.S. in third grade on account of rich relations. In “Honey Bunny,” she is a far-removed fashion student with a cocaine addiction, mistaken for a gringo girl from Columbia (University) in social settings. She seeks the salve of validation from her drug dealer:

“Paco is Guatemalan,” Pachico writes, “so every once in a while when speaking to him she’ll slyly throw in the odd Spanish word or two, a curse word or even a dicho, just to show that, yeah, okay, she’s lived in New York for what, fifteen years now, but she still knows how to conjugate verbs, knows which nouns are feminine versus masculine.”

She may know nouns, but she doesn’t know what happened to her classmates, she doesn’t remember their names; nor does she remember the name of the street she used to live on. She searches for answers in artifacts from her former life (an orange suitcase, a geography puzzle, stuffed animals) and on the internet.

“The statistic for forced disappearances is estimated at over fifty thousand—no, sixty thousand—some articles say over seventy thousand,” Pachico writes. “It makes her think of fables the maids used to tell her: the paisa farmer who went to heaven, la patasola and la llorona. Ghosts who would come knocking on your door, ringing on your bell, long dead souls with scarred faces, wandering the country with no name and no past.”

While menace and mystery refract through its characters’ parallel lives, The Lucky Ones ultimately proves hopeful—in addition to haunting.

—Author info: Megan Labrise ’04 is a freelance journalist and member of the National Book Critics Circle.