Near the beginning of the novel, Alvarez describes the pragmatic way Mami deals with her four daughters in their new American life. She assigns each of them their own color—pink, pastel blue, yellow, and white. She then buys the same outfit in the four designated colors, thereby treating each girl equally while acknowledging in a minimal way her individuality. Carla the psychologist would later write a paper on her mother’s system, claiming that “the color system had weakened the four girls’ identity differentiation abilities and made them forever unclear about personality boundaries.”
Carla’s diagnosis describes Alvarez’s characterization technique in the novel. While each of the four García daughters has a distinctive personality, each also shares a good deal with her sisters. To understand one, the reader must understand them all. Together, the girls represent the complexity of the immigrant girl’s experience in America. The Garcías’ story has multiple narrative perspectives, as stories shift from first-to third-person perspective. All the characters contribute to the narrative. Taken together, Alvarez has created characters embodying the individual, social, and political dimensions of becoming an American.
Being the oldest, Carla is shaped for the longest time by Dominican culture. In seventh grade when the family emigrates, she suffers from the blond Irish boys who call her names and mock her mispronunciation of English words. Adolescence and alienation make her bicultural status insufferable. For Carla’s sake and then the others’, their parents send the girls to a fashionable Boston boarding school, where they count among their classmates the daughters of America’s most prestigious families. In such a crucible, Carla not only loses her accent but also becomes thoroughly American. As an adult, she becomes a psychologist whose advice, according to her sisters, always takes the form of aphorisms of self-improvement. She has learned the Horatio Alger lesson well.
Sandi experiences a deep-seated emptiness that manifests itself first in an eating disorder and a compulsion to keep lists of books she must read, methodically checking off each one as she devours them until finally she collapses into madness. The void Sandi is clearly trying to fill is foreshadowed. When instructed to choose only one toy to bring with her to America, Sandi is incapable to making such a choice. Among the numerous expensive toys she possesses, none is worthy of such a special designation. No toy can satisfy her. Similarly, nothing she does as an adult can fill the emptiness Sandi feels.
Yolanda is the novel’s narrative center. Her judgments and sensibilities clearly dominate. In returning her to the Dominican Republic, Alvarez also creates a character who reconciles her present American self to the part rooted in the island. Yolanda, a failed poet, wife, and lover, settles for life as a schoolteacher, daughter, and sister. Having emerged from a nervous breakdown after her marriage ends, on the island once more, she realizes, “This is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never.” Yet she will not stay and cannot deny her connection to America. She embodies the immigrant ambivalence.
Fifi, the youngest, is a contradiction. As punishment, her parents send her back to the island for a year. Dominican values, they reason, will straighten her out. On the family’s Christmas visit, the sisters are horrified. Fifi—hair, makeup, and clothes all exactly like her cousins’—is engaged to a chauvinistic cousin who physically and mentally abuses her. The older García girls slyly reclaim their sister, only to lose her again when her father shamefully disowns her. She drops out of college, runs away to marry her German boyfriend, gives birth first to a son and then a daughter, and in the process...
(The entire section is 4,092 words.)