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In 1994, a crazy gringa dominicana (Dominican gringa) shows up at Dedé Mirabal's house in the Dominican Republic to interview her about the lives of her famous dead sisters: Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa. Her unexpected visit sends Dedé on a trip down memory lane, and we get the benefit of the story of her sisters' lives.
Minerva, the third sister, talks her parents into sending her to boarding school along with her older sister Patria. She makes friends with a fellow student, Sinita, who tells her a dark secret: President Trujillo's men have killed every man in her family, including her brother. Minerva gets involved in political movements at school and makes her little sister, María Teresa, hide her diary where she keeps details about who's involved, like her friend Hilda.
The oldest sister, Patria, meanwhile, is meant to be a nun but falls in love with a boy and marries him at age sixteen. She quickly has two kids but loses her third baby. It's hinted that stress over her sister's political risks affects her pregnancy. All four sisters accompany their mother on a pilgrimage to Higüey. Patria had lost her faith after the death of her baby, but when she sees all of the pilgrims praying she hears the Virgin Mary speaking to her.
After the girls' deaths, a family servant, Fela, begins channeling their spirits for visitors, including Minerva's daughter, Minou. The bishop doesn't like it, and neither does Dedé. She remembers her rivalry with Minerva for the attention of a young revolutionary named Virgilio, or Lío, Morales. While her own boyfriend, Jaimito, asks her to marry him, Lío asks Dedé to give Minerva a letter inviting him to escape to Colombia with him. She burns the letter.
Minerva, meanwhile, is sick of being cooped up at home instead of at university with her friends. She discovers her father has a second family, compete with four other daughters, and that he's been keeping Lío's letters from him. They fight, and she realizes she's stronger than her dad. At a party for the president, Minerva gets in trouble for refusing to sleep with Trujillo. The girls' dad goes to jail and dies soon after, and Minerva marries another revolutionary named Manolo.
María Teresa (aka Mate) moves in with Manolo and Minerva for the summer to help with their new baby and falls in love with a revolutionary who delivers some guns in the night. With that, she joins the movement with her sister, both sharing a code name: Mariposa (Butterfly). They begin constructing bombs and getting ready for the invasion from Cuba.
On a religious retreat in the mountains, a newly pregnant Patria is caught in the middle of some shelling. She sees a young revolutionary die in front of her and comes home ready to fight the regime. She joins her sisters' cell, and they try to get Dedé to join, but she won't because her husband is against it. When her brothers-in-law, nephew, and sisters Minerva and Mate are arrested and sent to prison, she takes care of their children.
Out of prison, the three sisters Patria, Minerva, and Mate drive across the mountains to visit Minerva and Mate's husbands, Manolo and Leandro, in prison. They are ambushed and murdered on the mountain pass, and Dedé must live to tell their stories.