We start off in the writer's brain: "Everything in the world began with a yes." Yeah, not very promising, at least not if you're in the mood for a good tale of adventure and derring-do. The narrator tells us that he's got this story to tell about a girl he knew, but he don't seem to know how to get started. (Here's a hint: maybe don't wait until the middle of the book to tell us the girl's name?)
Macabéa: how do we not love thee? Let's count the ways. She's poor, undernourished, unattractive, inexperienced, and crushingly ignorant. She lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, struggling to survive in a miserable life. This is not a heroine to get excited about … and that seems to be the conflict. How do you write a book about someone to whom nothing has ever happened except misery?
This plot doesn't really fit into a neat box, but we get the sense that the conflict is really all in the narrator—and maybe it's supposed to be in us, as well. In trying to understand how the world could let people like Macabéa exist, and the narrator is figuring out his own role (and ours) in creating the poor, invisible underclass that Macabéa belongs to.
Hey, something good happens to Macabéa!
Oh. Never mind. She has a boyfriend (Olímpico) for like, five minutes, but he's a total jerk—and then he leaves her for her sexy co-worker, Glória.
Macabéa pays a visit to a fortuneteller, Madame Carlota. Madame Carlota blows Macabéa's mind by, in quick succession, telling her that (1) her life is horrible, and (2) everything is about to change for the better. In an instant, Macabéa goes from being depressed and pessimistic to hopeful and eager. Things are looking up.
Macabéa leaves Madame Carlota's home full of optimism about her future. We're kind of biting our nails to see what comes next. Is she really going to get back together with Olímpico? Will she start that new job at the metal factory? Will the new boyfriend really be as cute as Madame Carlota says?
Awesome. Macabéa is run over by a big yellow Mercedes and dies by a gutter. Alone. In the rain.
Okay, this is super sad. On the plus side, the narrator suggests that death is the only way of arriving at our true selves, so Macabéa's death is more like an achievement than a tragedy.
Great. Maybe she'll even get a certificate of participation.