An au pair for a wealthy American family, and the novel’s protagonist and narrator. More than anything, Lucy wants to escape the influence of her native land, a British-ruled Caribbean island, but her homesickness and difficult relationship with her mother stand in her way. Sharply observant and frequently critical, she grows close to her employers while remaining keenly aware of the disparate circumstances separating her from them. Lucy unapologetically enjoys her sexual encounters with men but reserves her deepest, most painful feelings for her relationships with women. Though she suffers persistent dissatisfaction and disillusion as her new existence fails to meet her expectations, she also experiences moments of hope and peace and demonstrates great strength and determination in her quest to live on her own terms.
The woman of the household in which Lucy works. Though Mariah holds liberal views, she inadvertently offends Lucy with the naïveté and arrogance of her privileged upbringing. Still, Mariah demonstrates more generosity and kindness than others in her class, and Lucy comes to view her as a mother figure. As Mariah’s marriage declines, she becomes increasingly vulnerable, which leads Lucy to understand that even the wealthy have problems.
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The man of the household in which Lucy works. Despite his friendliness and good humor, Lewis epitomizes Lucy’s worst ideas about men when he cheats on Mariah. Handsome and rich, he has spent his life getting what he wants with little effort, and Lucy believes that he manipulates Mariah into ending their marriage so as to avoid taking blame for the relationship’s demise.
Lucy’s mother. Left behind in Lucy’s homeland, Annie makes no physical appearance in the novel, but she nonetheless has an immense presence in Lucy’s life. Often portrayed as godlike, Annie holds a place in Lucy’s heart as her first, and possibly only, great love. However, she discouraged Lucy’s educational and career aspirations while supporting her sons’ goals, which infuriates Lucy. Annie’s strained relationship with Lucy affects all aspects of Lucy’s life and sparks fears that Lucy will never overcome her past.
A servant in Lewis and Mariah’s household. One of the first people Lucy meets in America, the maid treats Lucy with hostility and increases her feelings of isolation.
Lucy’s mother’s friend. Sylvie has had a difficult existence, which left her with a scar on her cheek that Lucy views as a symbol of real life.
Mariah’s family’s hired hand. Gus brings out Lucy’s sympathies when Mariah treats him imperiously, but Lucy, deciding his Swedish ancestry makes him too different from her, refrains from reaching out to him.
The first important male figure in Lucy’s life. A philanderer who kept his distance from Lucy, he set the stage for Lucy’s dismissive attitude toward men. His death gives Lucy the resolve to leave Mariah and Lewis’s apartment.
The boy with whom Lucy first explores her sexuality. Tanner and Lucy share a purely physical bond that arouses Lucy so much that she grows curious about the pleasures that other boys may have to offer.
Lewis and Mariah’s youngest daughter. Miriam reminds Lucy of herself as a child and of her early experiences with her mother. Though her role in the novel is small, she bears the distinction of being the one person toward whom Lucy exhibits unconditional love.
Lewis and Mariah’s oldest daughter. Entering adolescence, Louisa shows signs of rebellion against Mariah that recall Lucy’s initial defiance of her mother.
Lewis and Mariah’s two other daughters. Though Lucy focuses little on their individual characteristics, May and Jane share the charming playfulness of all of Lewis and Mariah’s brood. Lucy wishes her own mother had cultivated those traits in her and hopes one day to raise such happy, free-spirited children herself.
An acquaintance who abruptly kisses Lucy. The boy and Lucy meet regularly for wordless sexual encounters until Lucy grows tired of him.
Mariah’s best friend. Dinah impresses Mariah with her generosity and zest for life, but Lucy finds her arrogant, envious, and vain, a view confirmed when Lucy catches her sexually involved with Lewis.
Lucy’s best friend. Peggy impresses Lucy with her fun-loving, carefree attitude, but the differences between her and Lucy, as well as Lucy’s association with Paul, eventually come between them. Lucy often compares their relationship to that of disgruntled lovers, and her inability to maintain closeness with Peggy shows Lucy’s difficulty in sustaining her most intimate ties. Still, by renting an apartment with Lucy, Peggy serves an important role in Lucy’s independence from Mariah and her mother.
Dinah’s brother and Lucy’s first North American boyfriend. Intelligent and well-traveled, Hugh wins over Lucy with his respectful attitude towards her homeland. He delights Lucy sexually, but she denies loving him and has no qualms about their parting.
A friend of Lucy’s mother. Poor and unloved, the nurse evokes Lucy’s fears about compromising herself in an occupation that her mother encourages but that Lucy believes falls short of her potential.
Peggy’s coworker and Lucy’s lover. Though Peggy deems him a pervert, Paul charms Lucy with his bright eyes and artistic sensibilities. He and Lucy embark on an intensely sexual relationship, which drives a wedge between Lucy and Peggy. He feels more strongly about Lucy than she does about him, and she tires of his constant presence at her new apartment.
A camera salesman with whom Lucy has a fling. Though she quickly jumps into his bed, Roland means little to Lucy. Her romp with him also displays her lack of feeling for Paul.
The woman from Lucy’s homeland who brings Lucy news of her father’s death. Though Maude strikes Lucy’s mother as a model of proper behavior, Maude serves as a bit of a foil for Lucy, who finds her sadistic and an inspiration, by negative example, to leave her mother’s home by age nineteen. Despite Maude’s unpleasantness, she provides Lucy some comfort when bringing news of Lucy’s father’s death, evoking Lucy’s violently mixed feelings about her native land.
Lucy’s childhood friend. Abnormally small, Myrna gladly takes money from a local fisherman, Mr. Thomas, to let him molest her, a revelation that provokes sexual jealousy in Lucy. Though Lucy desperately wants to know how Myrna’s encounters with Mr. Thomas felt, she is too inhibited by social convention to ask.
A fisherman from Lucy’s island who dies at sea. Mr. Thomas always behaved like a gentleman around Lucy, who wishes he had molested her instead of Myrna. Years later, Paul’s hands cause Lucy to remember Mr. Thomas, whose hands, forever lost to her, represent the height of sexual mystery.
A photographer and Lucy’s employer. Mr. Simon is the first person Lucy has met who has compromised his art for money. He lets her use his darkroom, facilitating her artistic development.