Eager to leave the West Indies, Lucy longs to leave her past behind. She does not feel nostalgic for her childhood and her homeland, where she felt oppressed by toxic British and family influences. However, on her arrival to North America, she reflects on the differences between the place that she had previously called home and where she now lives. She feels as if something is wrong because the sun is shinning but the air is still cold. Additionally, she recalls fond memories of her grandmother along with her favorite foods from home that her grandmother would cook for her, both of which are no longer available to her. She moves to America to work as an au pair for a well-off family. Although she is initially enamored with their seemingly perfect life, she grows disillusioned with their lifestyle and feels alienated from the family. Despite this, she does grow close to the mother, Mariah, who reminds Lucy of both the good and bad in her own mother. The relationship between Lucy and her mother is a central theme. At one point in her relationship with Mariah, Lucy sees Mariah (her boss) and her mother as the same, because they both try to control Lucy. (At other times, Lucy feels like Mariah's friend.) Lucy also sees a resemblance when she sees Lewis, Mariah's husband, cheats on Mariah, because Lucy's own father cheated on her mother.
Throughout the book, Lucy's strained relationship with her mother drives her quest for independence and ability to create her own identity against that of her mother's. Lucy's mother was committed to her father, who had children by multiple other women. Angry that her mother valued proper, committed relationships (and taught Lucy to behave the same way) and still ended up hurt, Lucy attempts to identify herself against her mother through her multiple sexual encounters devoid of emotional attachment. This novel explores Lucy's sexuality as part of her identity search, illustrated through her various sexual encounters with men as well as her homoerotic relationship with her friend Peggy, whom Mariah dislikes for being a bad influence.
Lucy's father is not referred to as much as her mother is spoken about, so it is unclear what kind of relationship they have or if she feels as negatively towards him as she does towards her mother. Lucy's father was an older man when he married her mother, and she describes their arrangement as mutually beneficial. Her mother married someone who would not bother her too much, while she was still able to maintain appearances. Likewise, her father in his old age married someone in order to take care of him. Her father had several love affairs and children with other women before he married her mother. Some of these women tried to cause harm to both Lucy and her mother throughout their lives. Lucy's father was raised by his grandmother. His mother left him at the age of five and then at the age of seven his father left to work on the Panama Canal, and he never saw either of them again. His grandmother then died in the middle of the night one night and did not wake up the next morning.
Lucy's mother writes her many letters while she works as an au pair, but, feeling betrayed by her mother for funding her half-siblings' education over hers, she refuses to open them. When she receives notice that her father died, she hastily sends her mother money, along with a letter cutting off all communication from her. Further fueling her desire to move away from the disenchanting life of Mariah's family, she leaves on hostile terms with Mariah, moves in with Peggy and begins a relationship with a man named Paul. Despite her newfound independence, she still remains emotionally cut off from her relationships, not returning the love for Paul that he professes to her. Although by the end of the novel she reestablishes a relationship with Mariah, her independence that she sought from childhood has not been fulfilling-the novel ends with Lucy wishing she "could love someone so much that she would die from it." Though she attempts to escape her past and detach herself from her roots, she consequently detaches herself from all relationships, leaving her feeling alone.
- The narrator and protagonist who works as an au pair. She is a character of extremes, having conflicting feelings of both homesickness and wanting to escape the influence of her mother and Caribbean motherland. She has many loveless sexual encounters, yet she resents her mother for letting her husband dominate her life, as Lucy's mother gave up her career goals of being a nurse to be with Lucy's father who cheats on her and leaves her with nothing when he dies. Lucy is also at odds with her employer Mariah, who represents another mother figure in Lucy's life; simultaneously existing as a source of comfort and disdain in Lucy's life, similar to the role her mother Annie also plays. Lucy views both her mother Annie and Mariah as caring, comforting, and strong women who allow themselves to fall into the sexist roles that society and their husbands expect of them, thus this brings a range of extreme emotions from Lucy regarding them as they embody what Lucy longs for and disdains simultaneously.
- Annie Potter
- Lucy's mother. Because she discourages Lucy's aspirations and instead encourages Lucy's brothers, she resents her and does her best to sever ties with her over the course of the novel. Nevertheless, Lucy's mother is a constant presence in her life, sending her letter and coming to Lucy's mind whenever she leasts expects it.
- Lucy's main employer and a doting, yet emotionally strained housewife struggling to maintain a semblance of stability in her family life.
- Mariah's husband. He is both physically and emotionally distant, choosing to work away from home for the better part of the novel. It is revealed that he has an affair with Dinah, Mariah's best friend. While Lucy does not feel strongly towards him for a large portion of the novel, she does become decidedly more hostile towards him once she learns of the affair.
- The boy with whom Lucy has her first sexual encounter. Though the relationship was purely physical, this begins Lucy's sexual curiosity, which manifests itself in future relationships with Hugh and others.
- The youngest daughter of Lewis and Mariah, with whom Lucy develops a special bond
- Mariah's best friend and the woman with whom Lewis has an affair. Mariah and Lucy view her differently: Mariah envies her kindness and general outgoing nature, while Lucy is immediately suspicious of both her motives and true nature.
- Lucy's best friend, whom she meets while in the United States. Peggy is a carefree woman from Ireland who dazzles Lucy with her knowledge of the city and the people in it. Though the two become friends, Lucy's inability to maintain particularly close relationships with anyone makes this friendship strained towards the end. However, Lucy's decision to rent an apartment with Peggy ultimately signifies a growing sense of independence from both her mother and Mariah.
- Lucy's first boyfriend in America and Dinah's brother. Shorter, dark-haired, and good-natured, Hugh instantly makes a strong impression with Lucy. The two become immediately infatuated with each other, beginning a passionate relationship that concerns Peggy. In the end, because she does not love him, she is not sad to see him go.
- Lucy's lover, who feels more for her than she does for him. Lucy is again warned against dating, as Peggy believes Paul to be a "creep."
Motifs and themes
While attending Queen Victoria Girl's school, she was forced to memorize a poem about daffodils. (This poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" was written by William Wordsworth roughly two centuries ago.) The poem recalls the beauty of daffodils that the speaker has seen years ago. Lucy cannot appreciate this beauty, because daffodils do not grow on her island. After reciting the poem, Lucy is applauded and she explains that at this moment she feels fake. She feels like people see her as English on the outside but on the inside she hates the English. The daffodils represent Lucy's alienation from both her education, and from her new home. Lucy’s mother continually occupies Lucy’s thoughts, exciting fury, scorn, desire, and guilt. Lucy relates a huge sum of her experiences to some memory or opinion about her mother, which proves the power of the mother-daughter bond. The very departure that Lucy hopes to make with her journey to America, however, causes her sorrow, for she believes she’ll never again konwledge the kind of love she shared with her mother. Though Lucy determines that she must break with her mother to achieve adulthood, she aches powerful feelings of loss in the process. The seasons also climax differences between Lucy’s old surroundings and her new northern climate. Lucy has an attitude toward the seasons that mirrors her mixed feelings about her native country. Though she rises the amount of weather and finds the summers less cruel than at home, in the colder months, she misses the warm sun and lively colors of the island. The seasons, then, highlight both Lucy’s inner and outer situations and grant them larger meaning by connecting them to a natural phenomenon experienced by many. Lucy’s letters from home brighten her difficult relationship with her mother. As Lucy takes to support her mother’s unopened letters on her dresser, she shows a defiance that also betrays her daughterly attachment: she doesn’t discard them and doubts the longing she’d feel if she saw her mother’s words. When Lucy finally reads the letter listing her father’s death and her mother’s disaster, she comes to her mother’s financial aid but also releases her anger in a letter home, once again representing her mixed feelings. After burning the letters she’s saved, Lucy finds herself able to move on. She fixes to leave Lewis and Mariah’s apartment and sends a letter home, stating empathy for her mother but also breaking with her by giving an untrue address. Throughout the novel, letters serve as markers of Lucy’s struggle to make a new life for herself by dodging her past.