Exposition (Initial Situation)
Mystical Abuela and Her Giant Blue Man
In the opening of García's work, we're brought into the middle of a ... unique situation. Celia del Pino is "guarding" her area of the Cuban coast like a boss—until she's distracted by the gigantic image of her husband striding toward her across the ocean, radiating a pretty blue light. She doesn't yet know it, but her husband Jorge has just died in a nursing home in Brooklyn. You might get whiplash doing a double-take at this moment, but take it easy on yourself. The story you're about to read dishes out heavy helpings of magical realism, which means you'll have to get used to moving back and forth between this world and others. This kind of atemporal setup also means that you'll have to piece information together as you move through the narrative.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Felicia Takes a Serious Step and Punk Lady Liberty Rocks the House
Remember that the narrative timeline in this book is pretty wonky—you'll have to pay close attention when you are as well as where. That's why we've located two candidates for the rising action: one in Cuba and one in the U.S.
On the Cuban side, we see Felicia descending further into madness and moving closer to some tragic action. In "The Fire Between Them," Felicia's difficult past experiences come to a head and push her to attempt suicide (and take her beloved son Ivanito with her). This moment propels Felicia into a series of disastrous situations and makes us realize that the family's time in Cuba may be ill-fated.
On the American side, Pilar heads into full-on adolescent rebellion. Just as she is totally certain that her estranged parents are from a completely different planet, Lourdes asks her to paint something new for the bakery to mark the Bicentennial celebrations in Brooklyn. She gives Pilar absolute freedom to choose the subject.
Pilar can't freaking believe it. It's kind of a do or die moment for her: she can either show that her mother's trust is safe with her or she can step out and make Lourdes feel just how much she doesn't want to be like her. Pilar chooses the second option. Her punk Lady Liberty painting receives a whole lot of criticism, but Lourdes' surprising reaction wins her some major brownie points with her daughter. Things don't heal between them, but this is definitely a moment that complicates Pilar's feelings about her mother.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Jorge Tunes Out, Clarity Through Assault and Santería
By 1979, Lourdes realizes that her father Jorge is slowly fading away. Of course, he's been dead for some time, but until this time his voice has been a strong and constant companion for her. Now Jorge speaks urgently of things she needs to do before he heads off into Oblivion. The things he has to say are not pleasant and Lourdes would rather not listen to him.
Among these items: she must go back to Cuba and be with her mother, carrying Jorge's apologies for being a rather unsympathetic husband. She might be further motivated by Jorge's news that her sister Felicia is dead—but she really isn't.
It takes more divine intervention to set Lourdes and Pilar on their much anticipated journey back to Cuba. Pilar chances on a botánica and chooses her own orisha, the god of lightning and fire, Changó. The proprietor of the shop tells her that she has to finish what's been started and gives Pilar special herbs to bathe in and bring clarity to her purpose.
On the way home, Pilar is assaulted by little boys, which steels her resolve to listen to the shopkeeper and participate in the ritual baths. Her participation in the indigenous rites of her lost motherland draws her toward decisive action: she will go to Cuba. Pilar's crisis brings her mother's torment and her own curiosity together with one resolve. They will both return to reclaim lost family ties and make peace with their past. Or at least try.
Felicia's Final Journey, Heading to Cuba
Felicia's timeline winds down quickly. When she returns from her disastrous experience with her third husband (Otto), Felicia rejoins her BFF Herminia in the worship of the orishas. This is a full-on conversion experience. She dedicates herself entirely to the santería and goes through the secret rites of initiation.
But it becomes evident that Felicia fails to thrive. Her newfound religious community does their best to save her (sacrifices and herbal medicines), but Felicia goes down fast with a mysterious malady. Felicia's narrative has been walking a fatal path for some time, so her actual departure doesn't shock as much as you might expect.
It does, however, break something in Celia. Her active mind and physical strength seem to leak away with the loss of her child. And it's at this moment that Pilar and Lourdes appear. Their return to Cuba is truly an anticlimax: they find nothing unexpected. Lourdes doesn't even get out of the car at Felicia's house (Jorge has already informed her that Felicia is dead) and she sees nothing in Cuba that changes her entrenched ideas about the destruction of Castro's regime.
While Pilar feels a little culture shock at the harshness of her grandmother's existence, she doesn't find the place that she fantasized about as a young teenager. What she sees is an aging grandmother and a country with very little to offer a new generation.
You Can't Go Home Again
Pilar gets something very important out of her trip to Cuba: she reclaims her grandmother as her own. But she realizes that she cannot keep her, because she really belongs in New York. It becomes a struggle for her to think of leaving Celia behind and telling her she intends to do so. Lourdes has a similar experience as she travels around Cuba, looking for the places of her past. Everything is decayed and changed almost beyond recognition.
By the time she reaches her husband's old ranch, she's no longer sure why she bothered to go there. Lourdes is relieved to see her mother once again, but realizes that the old rancor in her heart about being emotionally abandoned as a child will never heal. It's kind of a disappointing journey.
But it isn't without merit. Pilar and Lourdes realize that there really is only one way forward, even if it's something they don't want to do. It involves both forgetting and remembering and leaving the natural beauty of Cuba behind in exchange for peace of mind. While Pilar doesn't agree with her mother's narrow political ideologies, she does concur about one thing: Cuba is not home and they can't stay.
This is also true for Ivanito, who Lourdes sets on the path of immigration before leaving Cuba herself. Pilar surprises herself by going along with the plan, all the while knowing it will leave Celia entirely bereft of her family. But Celia still clings to the ideals of the Revolution, and separating herself from her beloved land is not an option.