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The events in the novel happen in reverse order—moving backwards in time from 1989 all the way to 1956. These years span the lives of the four García girls, and are divided into three sections. The first, from 1989-1972, portrays the García sisters as adults. The second, from 1970-1960, covers their adolescence. And the third section, from 1960-1956, explores their childhood in the Dominican Republic, right up to the point where they must flee the country and seek exile in the United States. Each section is divided into five chapters, which are like short stories that focus on different members of the family.
Okay, now that we gave you the basics of this (not gonna lie, kind of complex) structure, let's give you the juicy details.
In the first section, Yolanda explores an identity crisis by trying to see if she fits in in the Dominican Republic. Fifi tries to make amends to her father for eloping by throwing him a birthday party that goes awry. We learn how fond Mami is of telling stories, even if it means bending the truth a little bit. The first section features not one, but two mental breakdowns—brought to you by Sandi and Yoyo—and Yoyo's breakdown has a lot to do with the end of her marriage to a jerk named John. The section ends with an exploration of Yolanda's sexual awakening, where she explains to us why she never had sex with a guy named Rudy Elmenhurst. Bottom line: because he was a jerk, too.
In section two (remember, section two happens chronologically before section one) the four García sisters get accustomed to the "American teenage good life" (2.1.6) but are forced to spend their summers with their overprotective relatives on the Island. Fifi gets in trouble and has to live there for a while, but the sisters stage an intervention and get her back. Mami explores a brief stint as an inventor, but ends up passing the title of creative genius on to her daughter, Yoyo. Carla is harassed by schoolyard bullies and stalked by a pedophile, which really doesn't help her transition to a new country (there's a shocker!). Yoyo freaks out about seeing snow for the first time. And Sandi catches a woman making a move on her dad... also totally weird.
In the third section, we finally get to the story about how Carlos (Papi) was almost arrested by Trujillo's secret police. He and his family manage to escape to the U.S., thanks to the help of a State Department official named Victor Hubbard, who's kind of a player but at least has Papi's back.
A household servant named Chucha mourns the family's departure, and thinks about death a lot—hint, hint. Yoyo is envious of the toys her male cousin gets, and agrees to show him her private parts in exchange for a trade. Sandi's artistic talent ropes all the de la Torre children into art lessons with the overbearing art teacher Doña Charito; but then she catches the teacher's husband doing something naughty with his sculptures and is so surprised she falls and breaks her arm.
The statue the sculptor is "working on" (if you catch our drift) ends up having Sandi's face. Carla gives her mechanical bank to one of the maids, who appreciates it way more than she does; then feels really bad when her parents fire the maid under suspicion of stealing. Yoyo gets a toy drum from her grandma, and uses it to smuggle a newborn kitten away from its mommy cat. No one is happy with this situation; Yoyo feels guilty and throws the cat out the window. The momma cat haunts Yoyo for the rest of her life. Yoyo explains that this is the central "violation" that exists at the center of her art.