Meet Macabéa. You're probably not going to want to be her friend. She's a poor, underfed, unattractive, sickly, and inexperienced nineteen-year-old girl who works and lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
And now meet your narrator, Rodrigo S.M. He's sophisticated, suave, and super worked up about how in the world he's going to tell this story. So worked up, in fact, that takes him almost as much time to talk about telling it as it does to tell it. But here are the basics:
Macabéa was raised by a mean—we're talking evil-stepmother mean—aunt in the Northeastern part of Brazil. She now lives with four other girls in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. She works as a typist, but it looks like she might not be keeping that job for very long.
Weirdly (at least to the narrator), she seems oblivious to how sad her life is. You could say she takes pleasure in the little things: listening to the Radio Clock, going to the movies once a month, painting her nails bright red, sipping cold coffee before bed, and drinking Coca-Cola, and imagining being like Marilyn Monroe. You know, typical teenager.
Like a typical teenager, she eventually meets her first and only boyfriend, Olímpico. Also like a lot of teenage boyfriends, Olímpico is a thug, a criminal, and basically just a plain jerk. He ignores her, mistreats her, and eventually leaves her for her hot co-worker Glória.
Glória feels sort of bad about the whole thing with Olímpico, so she tries to help Macabéa a little by recommending she visit a fortuneteller. Gee, thanks.
Madame Carlota begins Macabéa's reading by telling her how horrible her life has been and currently is. Nice. And then, Madame informs Macabéa that her life is about to take a complete turn-around, which, if you've ever seen a movie, you'll know is about typical for fortunetellers. She's not going to be fired; Olímpico is going to propose; but a rich and loving foreigner named Hans (that's awfully specific) will come into her life and marry her. Naturally, Macabéa eats it up.
Macabéa leaves Madame Carlota's full of bewilderment and wonder. She steps off a curb, and…
A huge yellow Mercedes runs over her. Dude, we did not see that coming.
The novel ends with Macabéa's taking a really long time to die while the narrator reflects on death and existence and on what Macabéa might represent. And there you have it: miserable life, miserable death. Thanks, Clarice.