How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary and Analysis
"The Four Girls"
This chapter opens when Sofía (the youngest daughter) is twenty-six and the Carla (the oldest) almost thirty-one years old. It begins by discussing how their mother handled raising four girls so close in age. Their mother has always called them “the four girls” or used a general pet name, “Cuquita,” as far back as they can remember. When they were young, their mother color-coded their clothing and belongings to prevent confusion and jealousy among them. Carla, who became a child psychologist, later wrote an autobiographical essay, “I Was There Too,” arguing that the color-coding had weakened the girls’ identity differentiation abilities.
Their mother identifies each girl with a favorite story she likes to tell about that daughter. She begins with a story about Carla as a young child, when the family was still quite poor. Carla wanted a pair of red sneakers, but the family could not afford any unnecessary expense. One day a neighbor received a pair of sneakers as a gift for her daughter, but the shoes did not fit. Knowing how relentlessly Carla had been pestering her mother for sneakers, the neighbor offered the shoes to the Garcías. However, Carla demanded that the shoes be red, and refused to wear them until her father secretly painted them with his wife’s nail polish.
The next story shifts to Yolanda, the third eldest girl, who holds a graduate degree and writes poetry. Her mother believed she would be “the famous one,” but Yolanda has become a literature teacher, not a poet. She still gives readings, though, which her mother attends, seemingly unfazed by the explicit sexual content of many of Yolanda’s poems. At one reading, Yolanda’s mother unknowingly sits next to Yolanda’s lover, Clive, who is the head of the Comparative Literature department where Yolanda teaches. Clive pretends not to know Yolanda, and listens to her mother tell the story of a trip the family took to New York when Yolanda was three years old. Yolanda had been accidentally left aboard a New York bus, and when her parents finally caught up with the bus after running frantically for two blocks, they found her reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” to a crowd of people.
The narrator next explains that Laura García no longer tells her favorite story about Sandra, excusing herself by saying she would like to forget the past. Sandra was recently committed to a private mental hospital called Mount Hope, where her mother told the senior psychiatrist, Dr. Tandlemann, about the beginning of Sandra’s anorexia and nervous breakdown. Dr. Tandlemann corrects Laura whenever she calls her daughter “crazy,” but he soon realizes that Sandra’s condition extends beyond her eating disorder. Sandra, who inherited the fair skin and blue eyes of a distant Swedish ancestor, became devoted to her good looks and began going on dangerous crash diets. While in graduate school, she was hospitalized. When her parents arrived at the hospital, they found her reading frantically. She explained that she needed to read as many books as possible before she turned into a monkey, and she refused to eat meat, arguing that she might become a chicken or red snapper, since evolution had reached its peak and was now reversing. As Laura tells Dr. Tandlemann the story, Carlos, who has been looking out the window, sees Sandra walking across the lawn with a nurse. Without seeing her father, Sandra suddenly breaks into panicked run, having mistaken the lawnmower as a roaring animal on a leash
The final story also takes place at a hospital, but this time at the birth of Sofía’s daughter, Laura’s first granddaughter. As Laura admires the newborn, she strikes up a conversation with a young man whose wife has just given birth. Laura begins to tell the man about Sofía, who she says has always been a smart and lucky girl. She relates how the García house was burgled on the night Sofía was born, but the police caught the men and returned the stolen items. Then she erroneously tells him how Sofía met her German husband Otto on a church trip to Perú (Sofía actually met him when she followed her then-boyfriend to Colombia).
In the next scene, a week after the birth of Sofía’s daughter, the four sisters are gathered together for Christmas. It is early morning and the sisters are exchanging news before the other family members awake. Each girl is under emotional stress, and their intimate conversation is occasionally interrupted by bickering. Sandra has been released from Mount Hope psychiatric hospital a month ago, and Yolanda’s lover, Clive, has just gone back to his wife. The sisters unite, though, in laughing over their mother’s inaccurate story of Sofía’s marriage, from which she omits unsavory elements such as how Sofía ran away and eloped. The sisters begin to mimic playfully their father’s violent reaction to the love letters he had found, although Sofía reminds them that her father still refuses to speak with her. Soon after, Laura, Carlos, Otto, and Carla’s husband join them in the living room and Laura begins to relate a recent dream she had about the baby.
Each story Laura tells about her daughters captures a unique moment in that girl’s life, and expresses some particular idiosyncrasy or personality trait of that daughter. At the same time, they create a shared history that binds the family together. Storytelling also reveals much about the teller and the audience. Examining how or why people tell or listen to stories offers clues about their attitudes towards the story’s subject and each other.
The stories Laura tells in this chapter do not relate formative moments. Instead, they either discuss minor incidents in the girls’ childhoods or, in Sandra’s case, describe a later event with an unknown cause. The story of Carla’s red sneakers, for instance, tells of a trivial but memorable incident. It immerses its audience in a specific moment of the family’s past—when Laura and Carlos were recently married and still poor—and establishes the family’s internal dynamics.
The way the listeners react to the story in the outer frame narrative offers considerable insight into their characters. Carla emphasizes the color red in the story, indicating that she is searching for hidden sexual meanings in the story. Her interpretation of the story reveals more about her thought patterns than about the story itself, and demonstrates how focusing narrowly on one aspect of a story can distort it. Meanwhile, Carla’s husband rubs Carla’s back in sensual circles and fondles her shoulder “as if it were a breast” (45), a simile that suggests that Carla’s entire body is sexualized for her husband. This description of their interaction presents a reductive and incomplete view of the couple as obsessed with sex. While there is no question that they are preoccupied with sexual behavior, the narrator has exaggerated that aspect of them to the exclusion of other traits. This tendency highlights the fundamental difference between real life and stories: the process of selection. By selecting which details to include, the storyteller gains the advantage of establishing patterns that might not otherwise be visible, but they also sacrifice completeness in their vision of the subject.
Similarly, the way Laura tells Dr. Tandlemann about Sandra’s mental breakdown reveals attitudes Laura holds that might have contributed to Sandra’s problems. When describing Sandra, Laura emphasizes her pale skin and blue eyes as her distinguishing characteristics, not mentioning the complex emotional and mental life Sandra demonstrates in other chapters. Sandra is both the most beautiful and the least happy sister, but Laura fails to understand the connection between the two poles. To Laura, stuck in the traditional Dominican value system that privileges fair good looks, Sandra’s appearance has a straightforward advantage: it will help her find a husband. Laura’s failure to understand or sympathize with Sandra’s state of mind has probably exacerbated her daughter’s illness.
In the chapter’s final scene, the daughters gather and tell stories about their parents. Aspects of their lives that were showcased in the four previous stories—Carla’s psychology jargon, Yolanda’s poetry and her lover Clive, Sandra’s breakdown and Sofía’s daughter—all come into play. Sofía comments that there is “Nothing like a story to take the sting out of things” (65), pointing out anther value to storytelling as a way of understanding and coming to terms with difficult situations. These various observations about storytelling inform the rest of the novel, which is similarly structured as a series of tales.
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