Dreaming in Cuban tells the story of Celia del Pino and her family as they cope with the Cuban Revolution and endure the exile and emotional fallout that ensues. The story is deeply personal (rather than political), focusing primarily on the lives of the women in the family.
Celia del Pino has to reinvent herself after she is abandoned by her Spanish lover Gustavo and marries Jorge del Pino (a.k.a. The Next Best Thing). Jorge is super jealous of Gustavo and wants to punish Celia for her passionate romance. She is already fragile from her love loss, so Jorge finds it easy to finish her off by leaving her alone with his psychotic mother and sister. Celia breaks and Jorge commits her to an asylum for some very nasty "therapies."
What Jorge gets in return is a broken wife who is emotionally distant from their child (Lourdes) and who spends much of their married life writing letters to her long-gone lover.
García weaves the stories of her children into this base storyline, flying across the ocean to include her daughter Lourdes' family in the narrative (as well as a dying/dead Jorge, who had traveled to Brooklyn to receive medical treatment for cancer).
Lourdes is super American, owns two bakeries and has a headstrong daughter named Pilar. Pilar hates everything that Lourdes and America stand for and desperately wants to return to Cuba to be with Abuela Celia, with whom she feels great sympathy and has nightly telepathic communications. We know, it sounds weird at first, but just roll with it and pretty soon you might be experiencing some psychic phenomena with your grandma yourself.
Back in Cuba, Celia's daughter Felicia can't save herself from anything. She'd married a hideous man named Hugo Villaverde who gives her twin girls Luz and Milagro, son Ivanito, many bruises and even more STDs. Felicia succeeds in getting rid of Hugo by lighting his head on fire, but she slowly descends into madness as she marries twice more (#2 dies in a freak grease fire; #3 she pushes to his death), and attempts to kill herself and Ivanito. Luz and Milagro fear and detest Felicia and wrap themselves up in their own world to protect themselves.
Felicia eventually turns to santería to find some peace, but the gods have it out for her. She returns home from her initiation rites and dies a swift and mysterious death.
Jorge, who returns after his death to keep his beloved Lourdes company, informs her of Felicia's death and urges her to return to Cuba. She hesitates until Pilar reaches a kind of spiritual clarity about traveling to Cuba and sets the journey in motion. They return to find Celia in a sorry state, having just buried Felicia and lost her son, Javier (he runs off to the mountains, no forwarding address).
Lourdes and Pilar spend time with Celia and Felicia's children in Cuba. Pilar receives her grandmother's unsent letters to Gustavo—essentially her repository of memories—and learns what life is really like in Cuba. Lourdes visits the places of her past and confirms every bad opinion she's ever had about the island of her birth. She decides to take advantage of the open emigration allowed through the Peruvian embassy to get Ivanito out of Cuba. Even though she knows it will destroy her grandmother, Pilar eventually goes along with the plan because she realizes that there is no future for her little cousin there.
Ultimately, Celia is left by herself in Cuba with very little more than her house by the sea, her poetry, and her trademark pearl earrings, which she drops into the ocean in the last moments of the book.