At nineteen, Lucy Josephine Potter leaves her British-ruled Caribbean homeland with high hopes for the future, but she instantly grows disillusioned upon arriving in America to work as an au pair for an affluent family, whose lives, to her, seem incredibly charmed. After years of dreaming of escape from her birthplace, she finds her new surroundings cold and mundane and suffers intense homesickness. She dismisses her former dreams of a better existence as mere fantasies. Though she always felt out-of-place in her native land, she experiences extreme isolation in her new country, and while she likes her employers, Lewis and Mariah, and wants one day to emulate their happy family life, her initial attempt to reach out to them breeds only misunderstanding.
Lucy grows closer to Mariah but also marvels at the differences between her impoverished colonial background and Mariah’s privileged circumstances. Despite Lucy’s frequent memories of home, she speaks bitterly of those she left behind and focuses increasingly on thoughts of her mother, toward whom she feels great animosity and only occasional tenderness. As Lucy emerges from a hard winter, she gains confidence that she has truly begun her new life. When she, Mariah, and Mariah’s four daughters take a trip to the Great Lakes, however, Lucy sees ways in which Mariah, like her mother, tries to control her. She and Mariah have disparate views on everything from dining cars and plowed fields to Indian heritages and fish, and Lucy regards Mariah’s pampered perspective of the world with a mixture of rage and pity.
Summer brings another trip to the Great Lakes, this time with Lewis joining the family, and Lucy develops a deep affection for Lewis and Mariah’s youngest daughter, Miriam, who reminds her of her childhood and happier times with her mother. Mariah, too, continues to resemble Lucy’s mother in both good and bad ways. Noting something amiss in Lewis and Mariah’s relationship, Lucy pledges her loyalty to Mariah and thinks back to her own sexual awakening, which involved much physical pleasure but little emotional investment. With her good friend, Peggy, back in the city, Lucy experiences loneliness but also enjoys the warm weather and the lakeside picnics with the children. The arrival of Dinah, Mariah’s vain and envious best friend, puts Lucy on guard, but Lucy takes quickly to Hugh, Dinah’s brother, developing a sexual relationship with him that pleases her enormously, but, she insists, arouses no love. Meanwhile, Mariah and Lewis’s marriage deteriorates into frequent fighting, and Lucy catches Lewis nuzzling Dinah. By the end of the summer, Lucy feels little nostalgia about her time at the lake and easily says her goodbyes.
Upon returning to the city, Lucy, jaded from the summer’s revelations about Lewis and Mariah, abandons her plans to attend school and become a nurse and despairs of her chances of eluding her mother’s influence. Though she refuses to open her mother’s letters, she doesn’t discard them, and she increasingly believes she has become her mother’s clone. Due to their differences, tensions between Peggy and Lucy grow, and when Lucy falls for Peggy’s co-worker, Paul, Peggy disapproves, further harming their friendship. But because Peggy wants to escape her family and Lucy has tired of living under Lewis and Mariah’s roof, they overlook their problems to discuss getting an apartment together. Paul and Lucy see a lot of each other, spending most of their time in bed, but when Lucy decides to buy a camera and take up photography, she follows the camera salesman home and sleeps with him. Soon after, Paul declares his love for Lucy, who doesn’t share his feelings. Mariah and Lewis argue constantly, and not long after Mariah kicks Lewis out, Lucy discovers, from a fellow countrywoman, that her father has died, leaving her mother penniless. Overcome with emotion, Lucy sends her mother money, along with a vitriolic letter detailing her mother’s many transgressions. She burns the letter she receives in return, along with the other letters from her mother that she’s saved. During a discussion with Mariah, Lucy reveals how her mother neglected her once her brothers arrived. To help Lucy resolve her feelings for her mother, Mariah gives her some feminist tomes, but Lucy finds them useless in addressing the loss of the one great love of her life.
The death of her father intensifies Lucy’s wish to move away from Mariah, and when she announces her impending departure, Mariah becomes angry, starts treating her less like a friend than a servant, and gives her a cool farewell. A year after Lucy’s arrival in America, she once again finds herself embarking on a fresh start, and while she appreciates having her own place and belongings, her changed circumstances please her less than she’d hoped. Peggy proves an irritating roommate, her office job falls short of her expectations, and Paul’s constant presence at her new home annoys her. Before Mariah moves away, Lucy and Mariah have a pleasant visit, but Lucy wonders if she’ll ever see her again. Peggy and Paul appear to develop a secret relationship, but Lucy feels so disconnected from them that she hardly minds. Having finally achieved her independence, Lucy wishes she had the capacity to experience profound love.