Eva Luna tells the life story of her old friend Clarisa, who died of amazement when the pope arrived for a visit and was met in the street by homosexuals dressed as nuns. (The reference is likely to one of John Paul II’s visits to South America in the early 1980’s.) The bizarre old woman, who is well into her eighties, is widely considered to be a saint but from performing humble and improbable miracles such as curing hangovers and minor illnesses.
Eva traces the story of Clarisa’s life from her unhappy marriage to a greedy and vulgar provincial judge who is still alive and would be about a hundred years old. Traces of Clarisa’s aristocratic upbringing show in her talent as a classical pianist, but after the birth of their two retarded children, her husband closed himself up in a malodorous room, where he has lived in silence for more than forty years. Clarisa was forced to sell their possessions and take up the sewing of rag dolls and baking—of wedding cakes, ironically—to keep the family together. Although her ancestral home is dilapidated, she manages to hold onto it.
Clarisa deals admirably with her children’s abnormality, considering them pure souls immune to evil and treating them with great affection. She believes that God operates by a doctrine of compensation, and her faith is rewarded when she gives birth to two healthy sons who are kind and good and who help with their retarded brother and sister until they die in an accident involving a gas leak.
Throughout her life, Clarisa practices charitable acts despite her poverty. In one episode, she talks an armed robber into accepting her money as a gift so that he will not commit a sin, and then insists that he join her for tea. Her special talent, however, is in getting funds from the wealthy by working at cross purposes. For example, she convinces the influential politician Don Diego Cienfuegos to donate a refrigerator to the Teresian Sisters even though he is a socialist, arguing that the sisters provide free meals for communists and other children of the working poor who make up the congressman’s constituency. She and Cienfuegos subsequently become lifelong friends.
After the homosexuals disguised as nuns disrupt the papal visit to protest the pope’s stands on divorce, abortion, and other issues, Clarisa tells Eva that she has seen too much, and she predicts her imminent death. Eva notes that her old friend has developed two bumps on her shoulders, “as if her pair of great angel wings were about to erupt.” As her last days approach, Clarisa eats only flowers and honey. To her deathbed come all the people to whom she has shown charity throughout the years, including the robber (now a professional thief who steals from the rich, and is not, as the reader might anticipate, reformed), a madame named “La Señora,” and Don Diego Cienfuegos.
The dying Clarisa attempts to make amends with her repulsive husband to no avail and tells Eva that she feels she has sinned in some way. When Eva recognizes the similarity between Clarisa’s two healthy sons and Don Diego—now a national hero—she assumes that that is her friend’s grave sin. Clarisa insists that it was not a sin, “just a little boost to help God balance the scales of destiny.” Clarisa dies without suffering, not from cancer, as the doctors diagnose, and not of saintliness, as the people believe, but, Eva says, of astonishment that goes back to the pope’s visit.