"He stops at the ocean's edge, smiles almost shyly, as if he fears disturbing her, and stretches out a colossal hand. His blue eyes are like lasers in the night. The beams bounce off his fingernails, five hard blue shields. They scan the beach, illuminating shells and sleeping gulls, then focus on her. The porch turns blue, ultraviolet." ("Ocean Blue," 5)
Gigantic blue spirit-Jorge strides over the ocean to say farewell to his wife in Cuba. The experience is almost circus-like, even a little absurd, but this moment of passage from one life to the next signals serious life changes for the entire Del Pino family.
"The continents strain to unloose themselves, to drift reckless and heavy in the seas. Explosions tear and scar the land, spitting out black oaks and coal mines, street lamps and scorpions. Men lose the power of speech. The clocks stop." ("Going South," 17)
In one of her more global moments, Lourdes' sleeping mind reaches out to little geographical apocalypses. These premonitory visions of a world in flux continue to visit both Lourdes and Pilar as they journey toward Cuba.
"The more she took her father to the hospital for cobalt treatments, the more she reached for the pecan sticky buns, and for Rufino. The flesh amassed rapidly on her hips and buttocks, muting the angles of her bones. It collected on her thighs, fusing them above the knees. It hung from her arms like hammocks." ("Going South," 20)
It's an old story, but one that García tells with poetry and compassion. Lourdes suffers from isolation and unhappiness as her father descends into sickness. She takes comfort in pleasures of the flesh, which physically turn her into a different woman. Her penchant for extreme action will lead her to wild swings in her appearance throughout the novel.
"Celia had been a tall woman, a head taller than most men, with a full bosom and slender, muscled legs. Soon she was a fragile pile of opaque bones, with yellowed nails and no monthly blood." ("Palmas Street," 36)
Celia's metamorphosis is extreme and complete, and proves that the power of the mind is greater than the will of the body.
"Lourdes considers herself lucky. Immigration has redefined her, and she is grateful. Unlike her husband, she welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention...She wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which Lourdes claims never possessed her." ("Grove," 73)
It seems that immigration has affected Lourdes' family in one of two ways—adaptation or destruction—but in either instance, the result is a fashioning of completely new identities for the characters in exile.
"My sister and I call our mother 'not-Mamá.' As in not-Mamá charred the chicken and is cursing in the kitchen. Not-Mamá is playing that record again, dancing by herself in the dark...She wants us to tell her we love her. When we don't, she looks right past us as if she could see another pair of girls just behind us, girls who will tell her what she wants to hear." ("Shells," 121)
Felicia's twin daughters have developed their own speech patterns, further isolating them from their mother's erratic behavior. In this case, they deny their relationship with their mother in an attempt to reshape their traumatic family experiences.
"And then, as Celia watches, the little santera's moist eyes roll back in her dwarfish head until the whites gleam from two pinpricks, and she trembles once, twice, and slides against Celia in a heap on the sidewalk, smoking like a wet fire, sweet and musky, until nothing is left of her but her fringed cotton shawl." ("Baskets," 159-60)
The spontaneous combustion of Celia's ancient santera wins the award for most dramatic transfiguration in the book. We're not totally sure what caused the little lady to evaporate, but it means nothing good for Celia and her family.
"It's been a month since she stopped eating, and already she's lost thirty-four pounds. She envisions the muscled walls of her stomach shrinking, contracting, slickly clean from the absence of food and the gallons of springwater she drinks. She feels transparent, as if the hard lines of her hulking form were disintegrating." ("Matrix," 167)
And here's Lourdes on her downward weight curve. She embraces the rejection of food as heartily as she previously took to pecan sticky buns. It's clear from the moment that she sits down to Thanksgiving dinner that Lourdes is not a woman who does things by halves, and that moderation in anything won't be a mantra for her life.
"I peel off Andy Warhol's banana sticker and put on the good, thumping, straight-ahead rock and roll. The thick strings vibrate through my fingers, up my arms, down my chest. I don't know what I'm doing but I start thumping that old spruce dresser of an instrument for all it's worth, thumping and thumping, until I feel my life begin." ("Matrix," 181)
Pilar has just suffered through the humiliation of finding her boyfriend in the arms of the whitest girl she knows and is trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. Somehow, the acquisition of the huge bass guitar gives her someone to be and she draws strength from it.
"When you make a saint, the saint takes good care of you. But Felicia showed none of these blessings. Her eyes dried out like an old woman's and her fingers curled like claws until she could hardly pick up her spoon. Even her hair, which had been as black as a crow's, grew colorless in scruffy patches on her skull. Whenever she spoke, her lips blurred to a dull line in her face." ("God's Will," 189)
Things don't really go as Felicia hopes from the moment she chooses to marry Hugo Villaverde. Even when she does everything right and optimistically hopes for positive change, she's pretty well doomed to destruction. It almost feels like transformative suffering is a genetic thing in her family, as this passage mirrors very closely the moment when Celia takes to her bed over the loss of Gustavo.
"Later, they passed colorful handkerchiefs over Felicia's body, all the while grieving in low voices to purify her corpse. By the time they finished, the terrible lumps on Felicia's head had disappeared, and her skin was as smooth as the pink lining of a conch. Her eyes, too, had regained their original green." ("Six Days," 214)
Suffering is not particularly redemptive for Felicia, but somehow, she is granted a miracle of healing after her death. What is the use of this, you may ask? We're not sure, but perhaps it exists to prove to Celia that Felicia's religious beliefs have some validity, even if they don't save her.
"I've started dreaming in Spanish, which has never happened to me before. I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible. There's a magic here working its way through my veins." ("Six Days," 235)
Finally, we have the metamorphosis that gives the book its name. Pilar finds that a few days in Cuba is the only thing she needed to solidify her original identity within her. She feels like a new person after this happens, as though her mother tongue has truly taken root in her soul and brought her to a place of wonder and clarity.