On the day that the priest accused her of being possessed by the devil and that her Uncle Marcos's body was delivered to her house accompanied by a puppy, Barrabás, Clara del Valle began keeping a journal. Fifty years later, her husband Esteban and her granddaughter Alba refer to these journals as they piece together the story of their family.
Clara is a young girl when Barrabás arrives at the del Valle house. Her favorite sister, Rosa the Beautiful, is engaged to Esteban Trueba. Clara is clairvoyant and is able to predict almost every event in her life. She is not able to change the future, only to see it. While Esteban is off in the mines trying to make his fortune, Rosa is accidentally poisoned in the place of her father, Severo del Valle. Rosa dies. Clara is so shocked by the events that she stops talking. Nine years later, Esteban has made a fortune with his family property, Tres Marias, thanks to his hard work and to his exploitation of the local peasants. On top of exploiting their labor, Esteban exploits all of the young girls of the peasant families, notably Pancha, for his sexual satisfaction. In addition to the peasant girls, Esteban also has sexual relations with prostitutes, including Transito Soto. Transito and Esteban become friends, and he lends her money to move to the city. Esteban's mother is about to die, and he returns to the city, where he pays a visit to the del Valle home. Esteban and Clara become engaged and marry. They move into the big house on the corner that Esteban built for them. Esteban's sister Ferula moves in with them.
About a year after they are married, Clara and Esteban's first child, Blanca, is born. When the family travels to Tres Marias for the summer a few years later, Blanca meets Pedro Tercero and they fall in love. Pedro Tercero is the son of Pedro Segundo, the peasant foreman of Tres Marias. Toward the end of the summer, Clara becomes pregnant again with twins, who she announces will be named Jaime and Nicolas. Days before the twins are due, Clara's parents are killed in a car accident. Rescuers are unable to find Nivea's head. No one wants to tell Clara that Nivea is buried headless, because they do not want to upset her just before the birth. Clara, however, realizes that her mother's head has not been found and makes Ferula go with her to find it. As soon as she recovers her mother's head, Clara goes into labor. Over the years, Ferula and Clara have developed a deep friendship. Ferula's feelings for Clara border on passionate love, and she and Esteban develop a rivalry over Clara's affections. One morning, Esteban comes home unexpectedly and finds Ferula in Clara's bed. Esteban kicks Ferula out of the house. As she leaves, Ferula curses Esteban to eternal loneliness.
Blanca and Pedro Tercero's love grows as they mature, and they soon realize that Esteban would disapprove if he knew. In addition to their being of different classes, Pedro Tercero is a revolutionary, while Esteban is a conservative. Blanca and Pedro Tercero continue their romance in secret. Several years later, they are exposed to Esteban by Jean de Satigny, who is trying to ingratiate himself with Esteban so he can become either his business partner or his son-in-law. Esteban makes Blanca leave Tres Marias and tries to kill Pedro Tercero. In his anger, Esteban hits Clara. She never talks to him again. For several years although they live in the same house, they almost never see each other. Jaime and Nicolas finish boarding school and return home. Jaime studies medicine and Nicolas dabbles in spirituality and inventing. Esteban becomes very involved in the Conservative party, runs for Senate, and is elected. Esteban and Clara eventually return to a civil, if silent, relationship.
A few years later, Blanca gets pregnant. Esteban tells her that he has killed Pedro Tercero and forces her to marry Jean de Satigny. About six months after they are married, Blanca discovers Jean de Satigny's unusual sexual practices and leaves him. She gives birth to her daughter Alba as soon as she arrives home at the big house on the corner. Miguel, the younger brother of a friend and lover of Nicolas and Jaime, watches Alba's birth from a closet.
According to Clara, Alba is born lucky. She is raised by her entire family, inspiring great love in all. She is the only member of the family to develop a close and loving relationship with Esteban. Although she thinks that Jean de Satigny is her father and that he is dead, Alba meets Pedro Tercero and establishes a friendship with him. To the great sadness of everyone but herself, Clara dies. When she is eighteen, Alba enters the university where she meets Miguel, and they fall in love. Miguel is a revolutionary. They participate in some of the growing number of anti-conservative protests that are springing up around the country.
To everyone's surprise, the socialists win the elections. Pedro Tercero joins the government. The peasants take over Tres Marias. Esteban tries to stop them and is taken hostage. At Blanca's request, Pedro Tercero intervenes and saves Esteban. Esteban and the conservatives do all they can to discredit the socialists, including preparing to a military coup. A few months later, there is a military coup. Jaime, who is friends with the Socialist president, is killed. Miguel joins the guerrillas, and Pedro Tercero goes into hiding in the big house on the corner. Esteban is at first pleases with the coup but soon realizes that it results not in the conservatives' return to power, but in the establishment of a military dictatorship. He is powerless to do much other than to help Blanca and Pedro Tercero escape to Canada.
The colonel at the head of the dictatorship abducts Alba. He turns out to be Esteban Garcia, Pancha and Esteban Trueba's grandson. Before she died Pancha told Esteban the story of his ancestry. Esteban slowly made his way up the ranks of the military, in the process acquainted himself with Esteban Trueba and his family, especially Alba. Under the guise of finding out where Miguel is, Esteban Garcia exacts revenge on Alba for his grandmother's mistreatment. Desperate to find Alba, Esteban turns to Transito Soto, who runs the Christopher Columbus, a brothel-turned-hotel. Thanks to the connections she has established through her sex work, Transito is able to repay the favor Esteban did for her years before, and she assures that Alba is returned home. Alba and Esteban have just begun to write the story of their family when Esteban dies. Alba carries forth the project, pregnant with a child who's father is either Miguel or one of the men who raped her while she was in detention.