The novel is structured episodically as a series of interrelated stories told in reverse chronological order. Part 1 begins with the adult lives of the sisters between 1989 and 1972. In the first chapter, "Antojos," Yolanda visits her family in Dominican Republic as an adult and interacts with people from high and low social classes. Chapter 2, "The Kiss," brings the other three sisters into the picture and establishes their close relationship to each other and the difficulty they have had reconciling their American brand of feminism and sexual liberation with their parents' conservatism. This chapter focuses on the free-spirited Sofía as she plans a 70th birthday party for her father, from whom she has been estranged since she eloped six years ago. Chapter 3, "The Four Girls," relates stories told about each girl by their mother in different situations, demonstrating how storytelling binds the family together through a shared history. The last chapter of Part 1, "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story," tells the story of Yolanda's first serious relationship and her trouble integrating during her first year at a co-ed college.
Part 2 takes place between 1970 and 1960 and centers on the family's experience as recent immigrants to the United States. Chapter 6, "A Regular Revolution," describes how quickly the girls adjust to the freedoms of teenage life in the States after their initial discomfort. When their mother discovers a baggy of marijuana in their house, Sofía claims it as hers and agrees to spend a year in the Dominican Republic. When the family visits her a few months later, the sisters are shocked at how thoroughly she has absorbed Dominican culture, including its emphasis on dolled-up femininity and strutting machismo. They scheme to split up her relationship with her tyrannically misogynistic cousin, Manuel Gustavo. "Daughter of Invention" relates how Yolanda and her mother simultaneously search for creative outlets and personal growth as they begin adapting to their new culture. Her mother spends hours inventing improved devices, until one day she discovers that her idea for a rolling suitcase has just been patented by someone else. Yolanda begins to write poems in her new language, and she is asked to deliver an address for a teacher appreciation day in ninth grade. Her initial attempt at a rebellious speech, inspired by Whitman, enrages her conservative father. In "Trespass," Carla recalls a traumatic encounter with a pervert on her walk home from school, where she is regularly bullied by racist boys. The brief ninth chapter, "Snow," is about Yolanda's first snowfall, which she mistakes for the radioactive dust she has been warned will fall in an atomic explosion. The final chapter of this section, "Floor Show," takes place at a Spanish restaurant in New York, where the Garcías are being treated to a welcome dinner by a prominent American doctor and his wife. The childless couple helped Carlos secure the fellowship that brought him to the United States, and are now working to find him gainful employment. The episode is narrated by Sandra, who is beginning to understand the power of her good looks, and is shocked to see the doctor's drunken wife kiss Carlos on the lips.
The girls' childhood in the Dominican Republic between 1960 and 1956 forms the novel's final section. "The Blood of the Conquistadores" narrates the family's last day on the Island before fleeing hurriedly to the United States. Two thugs from the secret police enter the house to interrogate Carlos, who is under suspicion after helping to plan a failed coup against the dictator Trujillo. Carlos hides in a secret room until a CIA agent who fronts as the American consul, Victor Hubbard, intervenes and whisks the family to the airport. The chapter is narrated from many perspectives, including those of Carlos, their Haitian maid Chucha, the pedophilic CIA agent Victor Hubbard, a brothel madam, and even one of the secret police, capturing a wide range of Dominican voices and characters. In the next chapter, "The Human Body," Yolanda relates an episode from her childhood in which she agrees to show her friend Mundín her private parts if he will give her a large coil of pink clay he received as a gift. Yolanda's childish curiosity and creativity are contrasted implicitly with the masculine brutality of the dictator Trujillo, who marches his young grandson around in a military uniform. "Still Lives" explores Sandra's early artistic talent and the ways creativity may be nurtured or frozen in a child. Sandra's gift vanishes after an encounter with an apparently insane master sculptor leaves her with a broken arm; as an invalid, she is isolated and pampered, conditions that stunt her independent spirit. In "An American Surprise," the girls receive mechanized banks from New York for Christmas. Carla gives her bank, a statuette of the Virgin Mary ascending, to a superstitious servant who is dismissed on suspicion of having stolen it. The truth emerges too late, and the story reveals the unsentimental reality of Dominican class relations and the conflation of Christianity with voodoo-like superstition by the lower classes. Yolanda narrates the final chapter, "The Drum," about a drum she receives for Christmas, and in which she hides a kitten she pilfered from its mother. Yolanda ends up throwing the kitten out of a window in fear, and is then haunted by visions of the mother cat for months and even years after. In the novel's final paragraph, Yolanda hints that her creative life—including her poetry and storytelling—is driven by some residue of the guilt and terror of this experience.