Lucy, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, seeks independence from the colonial and maternal forces that shaped her youth, but her journey to North America to serve as an au pair for a wealthy family only highlights many of the influences that have hindered her and reveals the ambivalence behind her apparent drive for freedom. For all her bitter remarks about her mother and her native land, she frequently experiences intense homesickness and longing for her mother’s love. Though she no longer lives under British rule, she resents the upper-class privileges of her American employers. She replicates her difficult relationship with her mother in her dealings with Mariah and, to a lesser extent, Peggy. As she did at home, she embarks on sexual relationships with men who please her physically but leave her emotionally detached. Lucy realizes early on that her hopes of creating a glorious new life for herself bear little resemblance to reality, and with each new disappointment, Lucy develops a fatalism that at once strengthens her and makes her vulnerable. Though Lucy’s harsh view of the world prepares her for the hardships of living on her own terms, it also, at times, drives her to despair.
Much of Lucy’s quest for freedom results in isolation. She spends her first weeks as an immigrant without much human connection, and though she grows close to Mariah, Miriam, and Peggy, her most important relationships eventually unravel, and she finds herself, for the first time, truly living on her own. She has even further separated herself from her mother, and, by implication, her entire homeland, by giving a false report of her whereabouts. While Lucy, to some degree, has achieved her independence, it doesn’t bring her the joy she imagines. On the contrary, the novel’s conclusion finds her tearfully yearning for the capacity to love. Lucy’s alienation is typical of the immigrant experience, but only some of her loneliness clearly relates to her new surroundings. Her estrangement goes back to her place of birth and follows her beyond her adjustment to America. For Lucy, isolation transcends immigration to form an essential part of her existence, regardless of location or circumstance.
Mariah, Lucy’s employer, represents both Lucy’s past and her present. Though Mariah, an affluent North American white woman, is very different from Lucy’s mother, Lucy comes to view her as a mother figure who to some extent embodies the best and worst of her mother. Like Lucy’s mother, Mariah tries to mold Lucy in her own image, imposing her views on everything from daffodils to women to her Great Lakes home, but she also shares the warmth and tenderness that Lucy’s mother exhibited during Lucy’s childhood. In response, Lucy displays a similar ambivalence towards Mariah as she does toward her own mother, wavering between deep affection, pity, and resentment. The ways in which Mariah differs from Lucy’s mother also shed light on Lucy’s past. When Lucy appreciates Mariah’s good humor and tolerance, she exposes the lack of such traits in her mother. Despite her rage toward her mother, however, she also betrays her admiration for her when she derides Mariah for lacking the strength her mother would show in dealing with Lewis.
Mariah epitomizes traits of the new world to which Lucy has fled. Her wealth and privilege initially strike Lucy as the keys to happiness, though Lucy often disdains the naïve arrogance that accompanies Mariah’s good fortune. Mariah’s liberal attitude toward her children impresses Lucy, who hopes to emulate Mariah when she has her own family. Yet as Lucy learns that Mariah’s advantages fail to protect her from the unhappiness of a bad marriage, Mariah’s way of life loses its charm, and Lucy comes to understand the universality of human dissatisfaction and suffering, a knowledge that both matures and embitters her. Mariah, for her part, shows her imperious side once Lucy decides to leave her behind, which calls her generous and egalitarian impulses into question and underscores the ultimate distinctions between Lucy and herself. Though Mariah aids in Lucy’s journey to independence, Lucy must break with her in order to truly pursue her freedom.
Annie Potter, Lucy’s mother, constitutes a major force in the novel, despite her physical absence. Often referred to as godlike, she provides the motivation for much of Lucy’s behavior, for Lucy has made escaping her mother’s influence the supreme goal of her life. But as Lucy herself admits, she and her mother have much in common, so much so that as a child, Lucy thought of her mother as an extension of herself. Like Lucy, Annie possesses a sharp tongue and a strong mind, and she vacillates between nurture and withdrawal. Unlike Lucy, however, Annie has spent her life playing the part of the proper woman, attempting to instill in Lucy values of prudence and submission that Lucy believes go against both their natures. Whereas Lucy’s mother has made little use of her intelligence and married a man who has a bevy of other women, Lucy takes pains to avoid following the same path.
Lucy’s anger at her mother, however, goes beyond a disagreement about life choices and principles. Lucy calls her mother the great love of her life, and much of her rage is derived from what she sees as her mother’s rejection of that love with the birth of her brothers. From the difficult relationships that Lucy builds with the other women to her lack of true intimacy with men, the specter of Lucy’s lost love for her mother haunts her every move. Lucy’s feelings for her mother replicate her attitude toward her colonized homeland, which she both longs for and spurns in her mission to honor her true self. Only when Lucy attempts to resolve those feelings, by at once showing compassion for her mother and removing her from her life, can she begin to move forward by leaving Mariah’s home. Thus, Lucy’s mother both inspires and undermines Lucy’s quest for freedom, as Lucy attempts to flee the most important and persistent emotional bond of her existence.