On a Holy Thursday, Severo and Nivea del Valle and their eleven children go to Mass. They are not Catholic, but Severo wanted to be elected to parliament and feels it is important to be seen at Mass. Father Restrepo, the priest, is famous for his excessive religious zeal and for his long sermons. At one point during the service, Clara, the youngest of the del Valle children, asks Father Restrepo, out loud, "If that story about hell is a lie, we're all fucked, aren't we.... " Father Restrepo then accuses Clara of being possessed by the devil, and the del Valle family leave church in a hurry.

The members of the del Valle family are all unique. Nivea is an active suffragette who is extremely intuitive. Their oldest daughter, Rosa, is the most beautiful creature anyone has ever seen. Clara, in addition to being precocious, is clairvoyant. The family is quite rich and lives in an enormous house. Nana tends the house and cares for the children.

Despite Rosa's great beauty, she has never had many suitors who dared to approach her or her family. Several years before, Esteban Trueba, a young man from an old upper class family that lost all of its money, fell in love with Rosa and asked for her hand in marriage. Rosa and her parents agreed. However, Esteban wanted to secure his own fortune before the marriage and left to try to strike it rich in the mines. He works tirelessly, spurred on by his love for Rosa. Rosa spends most of her time embroidering a tablecloth with magic creatures.

After the del Valle family flees church, a group of men arrive carrying the body of Uncle Marcos, Nivea's brother. Marcos was an adventurer and Clara's favorite uncle. Between trips he stayed with the del Valle family, telling Clara stories and teaching her the customs of the far-off lands he visited. Uncle Marcos was also famous outside of the family because he had once assembled a flying contraption in which he had sailed off over the mountains. He had been taken for dead and was even buried, but then he reappeared. For this reason, Nivea has trouble believing that Marcos is actually dead this time. Marcos is truly dead, but accompanying his body is a puppy, Barrabas, which is still alive. Clara adopts the puppy, who grows into an enormous but docile dog.

At the end of the fall, Severo del Valle is invited to be the Liberal Party candidate for a southern province. Severo is very excited. They celebrate with a pig and many other gifts that the constituency from the south sends to the del Valle family. Clara announces that there will soon be an accidental death in the family. After the party, Rosa develops a cold. Doctor Cuevas visits Rosa and prescribes rest and lemonade with a shot of liquor. Severo tells Nana to follow the doctor's instructions, giving Rosa some of the brandy that had accompanied the pig. The next morning, Rosa is dead. Doctor Cuevas feels that there is something suspicious about the death and asks to perform an autopsy. The family reluctantly agrees. Doctor Cuevas and an assistant perform the autopsy in the kitchen. Clara, sensing that something strange is happening, sneaks out and secretly watches the entire autopsy. It turns out that the brandy, intended for Severo and snuck into the house along with the gifts from the constituents, was poisoned. No one ever discovers who sent the brandy. Clara is so shocked at the sight of the autopsy, and so frightened by her own prediction, that she stops speaking.

yEsteban Trueba is notified of Rosa's death and returns for the funeral, utterly distraught. He is furious that he was unable to spend any time with Rosa and is so unwilling to let her go that he bribes the cemetery caretaker to let him stay by her grave all that night.