What do we mean when we say that the tone of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is ironic? We mean that what the characters say they want and what the author knows they want are two different things. It's like the author is watching her characters from a distance and gently mocking them. Then she pats them on the head and says (not without affection), "Oh, sweetie. You'll figure it out."
Here's an example: when Yoyo goes back to the Island at the beginning of the novel (but the chronological end of the novel, confusingly enough) Yoyo stops to enjoy a scenic view of the Island:
Here and there a braid of smoke rises up from a hillside—a campesino and his family living out their solitary life. This is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never. (1.1.59)
Ah, the picturesque life of the campesinos. How quaint! How lovely! If only she could spend some more time contemplating their simple lifestyle. That would make her feel more complete. Right?
You can practically hear the author sighing. No, Yoyo. You just don't get it. First of all, the life of a campesino is way harder than you're imagining it to be. And more importantly, going camping is not going to solve all your problems. It's not that simple.
But the author's attitude towards her characters isn't totally critical. It's also searching, patient, and fearlessly honest. Reading this, you feel like the author has some serious questions (Why does Yolanda feel there is something missing in her life?) and is willing to follow her characters all the way back to the beginning of their memories in order to find the answers. Especially Yoyo: she's the protagonist, after all.
Yoyo's character flaws are all laid out on the page with brutal honesty. She's not good with men—"tentative and terrified" is more like it (1.2.15). Sometimes she's naive, or insecure, or anxious.
The most brutally honest passage in the book is towards the end of the last chapter, where Yoyo talks about the really terrible thing she did to a kitten she she was five:
I picked the meowing kitten out of my drum. Its little human face winced with meows. I detested the accusing sound of meow. I wanted to dunk it into the sink and make its meowing stop. Instead, I lifted the screen and threw the meowing ball out the window. I heard it land with a thud, saw it moments later, wobbling out from under the shadow of the house, meowing and stumbling forward. (3.5.56)
Wow. That is really not cool. But the author doesn't mince any words. She's patiently followed Yoyo this far and by golly, she's going to get down to the bottom of things! This is the ugly, ugly truth about a five-year-old's capacity for cruelty, in all its grotesque detail.
And it has to be said so that Yolanda can stop fooling herself and face up to who she is. When Yolanda says: "I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia," she's giving an honest picture of who she is (3.5.60). There's no trace of irony in that sentence, and no need to dig any deeper. We like to think the author is beaming with pride.
We could think of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents as an example of each of these categories of literature. Let's tackle them one-by-one, shall we?
First of all, this novel is all about family. Before we point you to our discussion of "Family" in our section on Themes, let us state the obvious: with the family name (García) in the title of the book and a family tree before the opening chapter, how could this not be a family drama? And trust us, this family is dramatic.
Secondly, this family has four daughters, all of whom pass through their adolescent years in the middle of the book. So we can definitely call this a coming-of-age story. But it's a little weird. Since the book moves backwards in time, the four girls are adults in the early chapters, and children by the end. Adolescence is still crammed in the middle, but we guess you could say the girls "come-of-age" in reverse.
Lots of critics have pointed out that many of the elements of Yolanda's story bear a striking resemblance to the author's own life. In fact, the character's nickname, Yo, means "I" in Spanish, which we think is a pretty big hint that Yolanda is an alter ego for Alvarez. And Alvarez's family famously got mad and stopped speaking to her after the book was published. Hm... guess there must be some truth to this story.
Even so, Alvarez has been quick to point out that this is a work of fiction. So maybe we can't argue that it's a straight-up autobiography, but it most likely contains some autobiographical elements.
Finally, this novel is an example of Postmodernism. Sure, it's not the craziest, most experimental book out there, but it definitely contains some quirky elements, like Alvarez's decision to mix up the storytelling with first- and third-person narrators so that you feel like the entire family is talking to you all at once. Or to include more poetic/stream of consciousness passages, like the chapter "Joe," that tells the story of Yolanda's mental breakdown in really symbolic language. This ain't your granny's Family Drama.
The title of this novel has a very explanatory ring to it: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Reading that, you expect to hear an explanation, right? Okay, Ms. Alvarez. How did they lose those accents?
We'll get to that answer in a minute. First, let's think about what it means to lose an accent. For a family of immigrants like the Garcías, it might mean learning to blend in so completely that they don't stand out as foreigners anymore. That's a good thing, right? Well, yeah, if it means not having rocks thrown at you at school or having people call you ugly names. But maybe losing your accent also means letting go of your culture, your family, and your past. And that part seems pretty sad... and confusing.
As this novel tells the story of how the four García sisters learn how to fit in to American society, it brings up their struggles with language. Yoyo is really relieved the first time she writes a speech that "finally sounded like herself in English!" (2.2.40). And the girls' father prides himself on having paid to "smooth the accent out of their English in expensive schools" (1.2.42).
But since this novel moves backwards in time, we know from the very beginning how much Yoyo ends up struggling with her native language. As an adult, her Spanish is "halting," and she has to ask her aunts to define words for her (1.1.27). Sure, she still speaks Spanish... but not like a native. Her accent has officially been "lost." And she wants it back!
One of the best things about this book is that the ending is really, really creepy. What can we say? Our favorite holiday is Halloween. Our ideal Friday involves horror movies.
The final chapter is all about kitten torture and a mama cat who comes back to haunt the torturer Yo for the rest of her life. Check out the last sentence:
At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art. (3.5.60)
We get shivers every time we read this sentence. But aside from just being generally spooky and awesome, we have to ask ourselves what this story means. Why is it here?
One big clue is that, in the very last paragraph, we jump forward in time—all the way from back in 1956, when Yoyo was a little kid about five years old, to the late eighties or early nineties, when Yoyo is an adult. She sums it up: "You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what's left in the hollow of my story?" (3.5.60). Since we've been moving backwards in time for the past... oh, three hundred pages or so, this jump forward is kind of a big deal.
It gives us the sense that, with the story of the terrible thing Yolanda did to the kitten and the mama cat's grief, we have gone back as far as we can go, and as far as we need to go to understand the person Yolanda is today: "a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia" (3.5.60).
This goes along with the idea that writing and storytelling for Yolanda is a kind of therapy. Yolanda tells her story, digging deeper and deeper into her past, until she finally finds the trauma that explains everything: the nightmares and insomnia, the obsessive need to tell stories, the failed relationships and mental breakdowns.
So there ya go. With this final paragraph, and its brilliant final sentence, we have a new understanding of Yoyo's character. We finally get why this whole novel was told backwards. We have some serious theoretical food for thought—art can be inspired by a violation—and we will never look at a black cat the same way again.
The Dominican Republic, or "the Island" as the family likes to call it, remains an idealized place in the García family imagination, but in reality it's a little more complicated. Sure, it's a lush and tropical paradise, but in the de la Torre family compound, home to the García sisters' maternal family, something is not quite right.
There are all these creepy signs that everything is not copacetic: protective walls surrounding the property, armed guards, and a general paranoia about traveling. On her solo drive through the countryside, Yoyo notices a compound "very like her family's," complete with sturdy wall and iron gate. The guard "seems—glimpsed through the flowering bars—a man locked in a strangely gorgeous prison" (1.1.64).
Though in the present day of the novel (1989 or thereabouts) the political situation of the Dominican Republic has supposedly "stabilized," all of the extreme security measures that the family goes to belie a deep-seated insecurity. Maybe the situation isn't as stable as everyone likes to think it is.
It makes sense that the García sisters would find creepiness in their childhood home. After all, the political threat during their girlhoods was explicit—dictator Rafael Trujillo could have their father arrested, tortured, and even murdered. The secret chamber that Carlos and his wife build in the back of their bedroom closet lets us know just how serious the threat is: it's soundproofed to the point of being claustrophobic, and contains everything a young revolutionary-in-hiding needs to survive for a few days, including an icon of San Judas, patron of impossible causes. And a gun. Don't forget the gun.
Some other creepy facts about the García children's home? It's right next door to the home of the dictator's daughter and grandson. Their grandparents' house, on the same property, is subjected to regular raids. Scary.
But for the children, the creepiest spot on their family's property is probably the coal shed. Rumored to be haunted, the coal shed is the site of lots of important transformative experiences, for those kids brave enough to face the dark and the Devil (3.5.18). It's where Yoyo shows her cousin Mundín her private parts to prove that she's a girl (3.2.38). And it's where Yoyo finds a baby kitten, which she steals and abandons, only to be haunted by its mother for the rest of her life (3.5.24). The scary political stuff of the grown-up world is happening outside; what happens here in the coal shed is scary in a primal, identity-transforming kind of way.
Before the García sisters ever move to the United States, this is what they know of New York: Russell Stover chocolates, FAO Schwarz, and the Empire State Building. Sounds like a pretty posh place, huh?
But once the girls are actually forced to move to the U.S., they realize they're not getting "the best the United States has to offer." There's is a world of "second-hand stuff, rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another, clothes at Round Robin, a black and white TV afflicted with wavy lines" (2.1.3). The family moves from a crowded apartment in the city (with unwelcoming neighbors) to a boring suburban neighborhood. It's nothing to write home about.
No one setting really dominates the García sisters' experience in the U.S. The action takes place in various suburban homes, in mental hospitals, and on college campuses. The lack of a strong U.S. setting contributes to the girls' feeling of being lost in their new country.
No epigraph, but the author does include this super handy family tree!
Hm, a family tree, you say? Seems like "family" might be a pretty important concept in this novel.
But let's take a close look at this family tree. You'll notice it's not exactly a careful genealogical record. It's more of a story-style tree, one that you can imagine the narrator drawing on a paper napkin with her sisters over a bottle of wine. Names aren't all that important (who can remember all those names?). But family legends are. "The Conquistadores" are included, and so is "the great-great-grandfather who married a Swedish girl."
The chart gets a little hazy around all Papi's brothers and sisters (the "33 other known Garcías") and around the "hair-and-nails cousins." But that's not the point. This isn't an objective historical record; it's a self-portrait. This is how the García Girls see themselves. It's where they think they came from. And that makes it a pretty good introduction to their family drama, don't you think?
How The García Girls Lost Their Accents is a page-turner. Trust us, you won't have trouble making it through the novel, because it's basically a collection of really addictive little stories.
So what makes it so challenging? Well, first of all, the stories are told in reverse order. So sometimes the novel can feel like a giant puzzle. To make sense of the family's history, you have to pay careful attention and try to fit all the pieces together in your head.
Second of all, Julia Alvarez is a really gifted writer who jam-packs her novel full of subtleties and references to history, literature and theoretical concepts. Reading it can be frustrating for those of us who like to understand every single detail of a novel, because it's so complex. But then again, that's what makes it so exciting. And you can always check out our "Shout Outs" section for a guide to most of the historical and literary references in the novel.
We think it's pretty neat when a novel's structure mirrors its subject matter. And How the García Girls Lost Their Accents manages to do that... three times over. At least. Check this out:
First of all, the writing in this novel is multifaceted—it comes at us from six main perspectives, with a couple of minor perspectives thrown in for good measure. Just to make this really, really clear, each chapter is labeled with the names of the family members who will be the stars of that particular story. What's the effect of having all of these voices in the narrative? Well, it's loud. It's jumbled. It gets interrupted. Here's an example of what we're talking about:
"Four—no, three of you, back then—three girls, and no money coming in."
"Well," the father interrupted. "I was working."
"Your father was working." The mother frowned. Once she got started on a story, she did not acknowledge interruptions. "But that measly little paycheck barely covered the rent."
The father frowned. "And my father," the mother continued, "was helping us out—"
"It was only a loan," the father explained to his son-in-law. "Paid every penny back."
"It was only a loan," the mother continued. "Anyway—the point is to make the story short [...]" (1.3.11-15)
Too late for that, Mami.
The point of all these interruptions is to make the narrative just as loud and dynamic and full of tangents as a dinner with the García family. No matter how short and sweet everyone wants the story to be, it won't be. It can't be. There are too many opinionated people chiming in.
Yoyo is a poet, so it makes sense that there are a few parts to this novel that have a more poetic style. In other words, the meaning of the sentences isn't transparent. Like poetry, the words in these passages are more than what they seem. They have symbolic meaning.
Here's a good example of poetic language in the chapter called "Joe":
Her father moved to the window and checked the sky. "When are you coming home?" the back asked Yo.
"Whenever she's ready to!" Her mother parted the hair from Yo's forehead. And the valentine appeared again on the earth. (1.4.131-133)
Don't take the language in this passage literally, because it won't make much sense. Read it with the eyes of a poet, looking for hidden meaning:
When "the back" asks Yo a question, we know it's not really a "back" talking, but Yo's father. This is an example of a synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part of something stands for the whole thing: in this case, Papi's back for Papi. But we can't stop there. We have to ask ourselves why it's Papi's back that's talking to Yoyo. Why not his face? It is because he can't face the fact that his daughter is mentally ill?
And what about the weird statement: "the valentine appeared again on the earth"? On one level we're talking about Yoyo's heart shaped face, which is revealed when Mami smoothes her hair back. But on another we know that it means Yoyo is starting to feel like she can love again. Because hearts are a symbol for love. (You probably already knew that.)
"Joe" is the most poetic and cryptic of all the chapters in the novel. It contains a really important symbol—the black raven—that we discuss in depth in the section on "Symbols."
Okay, this is possibly the coolest stylistic element you will hear about all week. The entire story is told... backwards.
That's right. The novel starts with Yolanda's adulthood and moves back in time, through Fifi's elopement and the family riff it causes, Sandi's mental breakdown, Yolanda's divorce and mental breakdown, and Yolanda's first sexual relationship. And that's just in the first section.
Aside from the fact that it is just plain impressive to be able to keep things suspenseful when your readers already know how things are going to turn out, telling the story backwards raises a lot of questions. Like, uh, why does Alvarez do it?
Well, here's our take on it. This novel is more than just the story of a Dominican family's escape from political persecution and their transition to life in the United States. That's the novel as read from the end to the beginning, the one that's told backwards in time.
The real, meaty, deep-down story of this novel is how Yolanda learns to accept herself. At the beginning of the novel, Yolanda is an adult woman who feels like a wreck; she's trapped between cultures, she doesn't know what language to speak, she doesn't know where her home is. In looking back over her life, Yolanda figures out who she is.
Hm...that sounds to us a lot like a certain kind of therapy developed by Sigmund Freud called "psychoanalysis". Also known as "the talking cure," psychoanalysis focuses on talking through your memories in order to uncover past traumas that might be making you feel all crazy and insecure without your even knowing it!
So even though Yolanda makes fun of her sister Carla's psychological approach to everything, she's actually engaging in a kind of psychological therapy just by telling these stories. Of course, a "talking cure" comes much more naturally to Yoyo than any of Carla's jargon-y explanations.
For Yolanda and her sisters, the Island (shorthand for the Dominican Republic) isn't just a physical place. It's also an imaginary place. It exists in their heads as a symbol with a double meaning: an idealized paradise of a home where their lives make perfect sense, and it's an oppressive cage. Both ideas are constantly in flux. It's sort of a "can't live with it, can't live without it" kind of scenario.
In the first chapter, for example, Yolanda pines after her homeland like it's the solution to all of her problems. "Let this turn out to be my home," Yolanda wishes when she returns to the D.R. for a visit. She longs to drive out in the country by herself, thinking as she looks at the quaint little campesino cottages, "This is what she has been missing all these years" (1.1.59). And she hungers for guavas, picked fresh from the tree. It's all part of the nostalgic Island getaway package.
But Yoyo didn't always think of the Island with so much nostalgia. As teenagers, she and her sisters think of it as a cage—a really pretty, tropical cage, but a cage nonetheless. It's like a monkey experiment that their sister Carla tells them about:
These baby monkeys were kept in a cage so long, they wouldn't come out when the doors were finally left open. Instead, they stayed inside and poked their arms through the bars for their food, just out of reach. (2.1.149)
That's the trouble with the Island—it's completely inescapable. For the García girls, their family will always tie them to the Island. And being tied to the Island means not being to fully embrace their American identity. It will always be "just out of reach."
At first, the mother cat is just a cat. She's a black cat who has had a litter of kittens in the coal shed, a tiny shack on the edge of the Garcías' property where they keep the coal for boiling laundry water. The coal shed is rumored to be haunted, and the mama cat is black, so maybe that makes her a little extra spooky. She can lurk around in the dark coal shed, maybe twine around your legs like seaweed, jump on your shoulders from out of nowhere… okay now we're just scaring ourselves.
Little Yoyo, who we guess is about five, stumbles upon the mama cat and her litter of black kittens while she's exploring the coal shed one day. Yoyo knows the kitten is too young to leave its mother—it's "still suckling," and "to take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live"—but she takes him anyway (184.108.40.206).
Of course she does. She's a little girl, and dang are kittens cute. But it soon becomes apparent that both the kitten, who is mewing up a storm, and mama cat, who is angrily tailing Yoyo's every move, are none too happy about this turn of events. Yoyo starts to feel guilty, and in her guilt, does something really horrible to the kitten—she throws him out the window.
The mama cat is definitely not cool with this. That night, she appears at the foot of Yoyo's bed, "poking her face in so that the gauzy net was molded to her features like an awful death mask" (3.5.58). A black cat from the haunted coal shed, looking "spectral" at the foot of little Yoyo's bed? Terrifying.
The black cat comes back to haunt Yoyo's bedside every night, even after her Mami makes sure all the doors and windows are shut tight. Is the cat really there, or is she just a nightmare? Is it a ghost, or a real creature?
Yoyo grows out of the nightmares, but the idea of the mother cat haunts Yoyo for the rest of her life. Even now, as an adult, Yoyo sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and hears "a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art" (3.5.60).
It's obvious that mama cat is more than just a cat. And she's more than just a ghost. She's a reminder: a reminder of the horrible cruelty Yoyo was capable of even as a small child. She took an infant creature away from its mother and left it lost and homeless.
Yoyo says that this vision of mama cat points to some "violation" that lies at the center of her art. Is she referring to the violation she committed against the kitten? Is Yoyo a better artist because she knows what it's like to commit that atrocity? When Yoyo holds the kitten in her hands and looks at its "little human face," she experiences what it's like to have total, authoritarian power over another creature. Just like the dictator Trujillo. And just like her dad.
Yoyo does a cruel thing, but maybe understanding why she did it helps her to write from the perspective of people who do cruel things. Whether she's writing about Papi, or about the soldiers who come to interrogate him, she can have empathy for them because she understands that human cruelty is just another facet of the human condition. She doesn't condone or support their cruelty, but she understands it.
Or is the "violation" that shapes her art referring to the traumatic experience of being ripped from her homeland while, like the kitten, she was still too young, and being dumped unceremoniously into the wilderness of a confusing foreign country? See, Yoyo is both violator and violated in this story. That double perspective probably helps her be a better writer, too.
When Mami tells her favorite story about Carla, "The Red Sneakers," Carla (who's a psychologist) likes to analyze it for hidden meaning with her analyst husband.Thing is, they never really let anyone else in on the joke. It goes something like this:
"That's classic," the analyst said, winking at his wife.
"Red sneakers at that." Carla shook her head, stressing the word red.
"Jesus!" the second oldest groaned. (1.3.31-33)
Like Sandi, we're feeling pretty exasperated with Carla and her husband. What's so significant about the sneakers being red? Will someone please tell us how to decode this story?
Guess what? They never do. We're left wondering about the significance of the red shoes, and feeling vaguely annoyed. But let us let you in on a little secret:
The red sneakers can be a symbol for anything.
This novel has a pretty fraught relationship to symbols. They're totally present in the novel—mama cat, anyone?—but the novel is also aware of how symbolism, like cultural nuances and personal identity, is fluid.
Yoyo's dirtbag college boyfriend Rudy is all about peppering his college poetry with dirty double entendres. And Yoyo doesn't understand the inside joke in his poetry, because her English doesn't yet contain the understanding that certain words like, uh, "pussy-cat," can get pretty XXX-rated when used in the right context.
But once Yo is in on the joke, she's totally there with the symbolism. She's adopted a new vocabulary. So when Carla gets introduced to the oh-so-symbolic vocabulary of psychoanalysis (you know, the field of study that launched a thousand cigar jokes and Freudian slips) she starts looking at things like "red sneakers" in a whole new light.
We know what you're thinking. What's with all these black birds and ravens that keep popping up throughout the novel? Here are a couple of subtle allusions for you: Mami makes a roundabout reference to Edgar Allan Poe (author of "The Raven"), and Yoyo's boyfriend Clive thinks she's talking about the famous Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird".
As Stevens points out, there are (at least) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Which is helpful to keep in mind.
Because there's a very strange black bird that makes its appearance in this novel. Here's the gist of it: while being hospitalized for a mental breakdown, Yoyo opens her mouth and a big, black bird comes out. It's not a nice bird. It flies through the window and dive bombs her latest crush object, her therapist, Dr. Payne. It tears his chest open, and then flies off into some storm clouds.
We told you it wasn't a friendly bird.
So where did this bird come from, and what does it signify? The bird has something to do with Yoyo's mental breakdown, and it may even have something to do with her getting better.
Let's look at the text: the bird makes its first little flappings in Yolanda's heart when her husband, John, forcibly kisses her, "pushing her words back in her throat." The words she swallows "beat against her stomach" and "peck at her ribs" (1.4.73-75). So this baby bird is made from the combination of Yoyo's words and John's refusal to let her say them.
Right before Yoyo vomits up the bird (gross), she's overwhelmed by desire. The bird stirring is "an itch she can't get to." It's "more desperate than hunger" (1.4.49-51). The bird itself is really obviously sexual. Yoyo describes its "tiny head drooping like its sex between arching wings" (1.4.155).
The black bird is a symbol for sexual desire. It's no wonder it goes after Dr. Payne, who Yoyo is nursing a secret crush on. Attack, raven, attack!
The black bird is also the mental distress that causes Yoyo's breakdown. After all, the little baby bird is born inside her when her marriage falls apart. And Yoyo seems to get better soon after she vomits up the bird and sees it disappear.
The bird is also a manifestation of Yoyo's words. The words she swallows and can't express (because John forces them down her throat) become the baby bird. And after the bird leaves, she's able to start writing again.
These are three ways of exploring the symbol of the black bird, but we're willing to bet there are at least thirteen ways of looking at this particular birdie.
It's tricky to try to identify the narrator in this novel, because each chapter is told from a different perspective. In fact, some chapters contain more than one perspective. So confusing. Most of the time, the narrator speaks in the third person, and seems to have complete access to every single one of the García family's collective brain cells.
A few chapters are told in the first person. Fifi gets a section of "The Blood of the Conquistadores." And so does the maid, Chucha; the only non-family member to narrate part of the novel. Sandi narrates "Still Lives." And Carla tells the story of "An American Surprise." "A Regular Revolution" is told in the first person, plural, using the pronoun "we." That's right—it's told by the collective voice of the four García girls.
All these perspectives, and especially the use of the collective voice "we," conspire to give us the feeling of this sort of hivemind narrator. That's right—the narrator is like a hive of bees. The collective unconscious. The Borg. Star Trek reference, anyone? Up top.
The group-speak of the book really emphasizes the importance of the family as a unit. Check out our discussion of the theme of family in this novel.
But the most chatty of the narrators is definitely Yolanda. "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story," "Snow," "The Human Body" and "The Drum" are all told from her first person perspective, which we think bulks up our argument that Yolanda is the protagonist of the novel. Check out our discussion of this in the section on "Character Role Identification" for more of that analytic goodness.
Yolanda's journey of self-exploration is really just a metaphorical voyage—but it's one way in which her story can be matched up with a Booker Basic Plot.
Our heroine, Yolanda, is feeling lost. What culture does she belong to? She visits the Dominican Republic, hoping that it will turn out to be her home. But her trip doesn't turn out to be the homecoming she wished for. So Yolanda starts to search her past for other clues.
Yolanda's getting into the rhythm of things. She wants to unravel her past like a blanket, "as if there were a stitch she missed, a mistake she made way back when she fell in love with her first man, and if only she could find it, maybe she could undo it" (1.3.178).
Okay, we're getting down to Yoyo's earliest memories here, and we still haven't figured out why she's unhappy. Hey, what does this terrible story about kitten torture have to do with anything? This is pretty alarming behavior for our heroine.
Yoyo isn't going to get away with that kitten torture. She's haunted for nights on end by the kitten's mother, who won't let her forget about the terrible thing she's done.
Oh, wait a second—this is the story Yolanda needed! She fast-forwards through time, back to the present day, with a clear new understanding of how the "violation" of the kitten shaped her identity and her art. Yolanda's venture into the past has completely changed her.
There are a couple of ways to analyze the plot of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. You could examine the story of the family's escape from political persecution in the Dominican Republic and their adjustment to life in the United States—this is the story that's told backwards over the course of the novel.
Or you could see the family's history as sort of a background for another, more intimate story. It's the story of Yolanda's self-exploration and gradual self-acceptance.
We like that both plots exist simultaneously and in opposite directions—it's kind of like they're mirror images of one another. We'll analyze them both below according to a "Classic Plot Analysis."
Ah, the innocence of youth! The idyllic bliss of Island life! What's that you say? These little girls are torturing kittens, spying on weird sexual acts, and showing their genitals to their male cousin? Oh, and also the Dominican Republic is ruled by a tyrannical, genocidal dictator?
Wow, this is a lot of information to cram into an Exposition—which is basically a description of the lay of the land, before the plot gets moving. But this rich description of the García sisters' childhood gives us the idea that they're happy where they are. They're home. And they don't really expect that to change.
That is, until...
The CIA sends Victor Hubbard to organize an upper-class rebellion against Rafael Trujillo, Genocidal Maniac. And one of those would-be rebels is the García girls' dad, Carlos García. Okay, this is starting to get exciting!
Oh boy, the García family is in trouble now! Carlos is nearly arrested by the SIM, and the family has to flee the country. Chucha talks about their leaving as though they are dying. They're going to live in a land of zombies, and they'll never really be able to come home again. This is a moment of maximum crisis.
Phew, the García family made it. They escaped with their lives, and adrenaline levels can return to normal.
While the international plot-hatching action is definitely falling, the regular ol' family drama takes center stage again. Nasty neighbors, boring suburbs and second-hand clothes. The girls can't even get a decent television. This is a long way from the luxurious lifestyle they're used to. The language barrier and cultural differences add to the girls' feeling of isolation and "otherness."
Papi's career as international rabble-rouser is definitely over. Nothing really worked out the way he hoped, and he seems a little depressed about it.
As for the García sisters, they've managed to build successful careers, but they aren't so lucky in love. In fact, Yoyo considers herself and her two older sisters to be train wrecks. Are they trapped between two cultures?
As far as resolutions go, this one is pretty open-ended.
Yoyo's having a midlife crisis. Who is she? Where is her home? She's never felt at home in the U.S., but she doesn't seem to fit in in the Dominican Republic, either. This initial situation is a real pickle.
To deal with these confused feelings, Yoyo starts telling stories. Backwards. It's kind of like she's unraveling her knitting, trying to find the mistake that she made a long time ago that's screwing everything up now. We don't know that we'd describe this as a "conflict," really. It's more of a strategy that gets the plot moving.
When Yoyo began her storytelling journey, did she ever think that the most important moment in her life was going to involve a kitten? Yoyo takes a kitten from its mother and then cruelly abandons it because she feels guilty. Compared to this moment, moving to the U.S. was a piece of cake. This is a moral crisis.
Mama cat starts haunting Yoyo, never letting her forget the moment of the "violation." Whoa. "Violation." That's a pretty climactic word. It points us to the single most horrific action in the plot: throwing a cute little kitten out of a window.
For Yoyo, remembering this violation changes everything. Let's see what happens next.
Now that she's identified the moment of trauma, Yoyo can zoom back to the present moment. She fast-forwards through her move to the U.S., her first glimpse of snow, her literary career. It all makes so much more sense now. Everything falls into place.
Yoyo's final two sentences are an honest assessment of her identity, and an admission about "The Kitten Incident." The affair with the kitten was a violation—but it's the reason Yoyo is a writer. And she's comfortable admitting that. Yolanda's national and cultural identities may continue to be divided, but her identity as a storyteller is resolved.
If García Girls were a three-act play, we think the acts would be divided up according to the three major sections of the book (conveniently numbered I, II and III). Let's take a look at how this division would pan out, plotwise:
The García girls as adults. The novel explores the grown-up lives of the García girls. Are they happy? Well, not really. Are they confused? Oh, most definitely. Yoyo reflects backwards on every romantic relationship she's ever had, hoping to unravel the mistakes she's made.
The García girls as teenagers. Okay, we've made it through adulthood without feeling any more stable. So let's keep going, shall we? Let's explore some of the really uncomfortable moments from the García family's first few years in the U.S. This act features mean bullies, a creepy pedophile, and an A-bomb fake-out. It takes us to the moment where the family is newly moved to the United States—it's about as lost and lonely as they've ever felt in their lives.
This act starts with the traumatic moment that forces the family into exile: Carlos's near escape from Trujillo's secret police. It takes us through some pretty powerful early memories of all four of the García daughters, but wraps up with Yoyo's most traumatic memory, and the one that makes her the artist she is today: the abandonment of a tiny kitten. Having faced up to this horrible moment in her life, Yoyo is free to accept herself.