Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy chronicles the life of the protagonist, Lucy, over her first year in America as an au pair. The author herself came to America as an au pair. Kincaid originally published the novel as installments in the New Yorker; the novel is arranged into five episodic chapters. Lucy narrates her story by interspersing flashbacks, dreams, and internal dialogue. The product is a nonlinear narrative that flows smoothly between past and present because of the strength of Lucy's voice and Kincaid's craft.
Upon arriving in America, Lucy finds everything new, from the weather to the refrigerator. Lucy feels an influx of unexpected emotions. When she left home, she expected to feel excitement and relief rather than homesickness. In order to comfort herself, Lucy dreams of her grandmother's cooking.
Lucy likes the family she works for. Lewis, the father, is a successful lawyer, and his wife Mariah is a willing guide and source of support for Lucy throughout her adjustment. Mariah and Lewis yearn to expose Lucy not only to new things but also to new concepts. For example, after Lucy tells the family about a dream full of sexual imagery in which she was naked and running away from Lewis, they realize that she would better grasp the dream's implications if she had encountered Freud. Throughout her time with the family, Lewis and Mariah buy Lucy not only a book on Freud but also a myriad of other books on various topics such as photography and feminism.
March comes around, and Mariah is looking forward to spring. Daffodils are one of Mariah's favorite flowers, but Lucy despises them even though she has never seen them. As a child Lucy was made to memorize a poem about them. Although she recited the poem perfectly, she deeply resented it. Back in the present, Mariah is busy making plans for the family's summer trip to the lake house, and Lucy meets her new best friend Peggy. Peggy helps her get acclimated to American culture, but she is a bad example and is not allowed around the children.
The family travels to their summer home by the Great Lakes. Lucy has never been on a train before, but she perceptively observes that all of the people who look like her relatives are performing work as servants. Lucy and the four girls accustom themselves to the daily routine at the lake house, where they walk through the forest to the beach. At the lake house, Lucy meets Dinah's brother Hugh. Lucy and Hugh instantly find a connection and become lovers. At the end of the summer, however, they part ways.
Upon the family's return to New York in September, Lucy begins to make some major changes. She drops her nursing classes and studies photography instead. One night at a party with Peggy, Lucy meets a fascinating artist named Paul. As Lucy as Paul become lovers, Peggy and Lucy grow apart. Despite being determined to be fully independent, Peggy and Lucy make arrangements to share an apartment.
Meanwhile, the household of Mariah and Lewis has taken a turn for the worse. They argue more frequently. Eventually Mariah asks Lewis to leave after his affair with Dinah has been revealed.
A pivotal moment occurs when Lucy's relative Maude Quick arrives at the house unexpectedly. She bears the news of Lucy's father's death. It has been over a month, but Lucy is unaware of it, never having opened any of her mother's letters. Lucy immediately sends all of her savings home, and Mariah contributes money too. Yet this sorrow has not overcome Lucy's hostility to her origins. She remains angry with her mother. Along with the money, she sends a bitter letter blaming her mother for marrying the kind of man who would leave her in debt.
Lucy goes through a period of depression. That January, she quits her job with Mariah and moves into the apartment with Peggy. As a secretary for a photographer, Lucy is truly living on her own, truly not caring for anyone. The novel closes with Lucy writing her full name on a blank journal, yet wishing that she could love someone deeply.