The central figure of this novel is a teenage girl from the West Indies working as an au pair for an American family. Her name is Lucy, and as the story opens, she describes her first day on the job, her surroundings, and the ambivalence of being away from home. Faced with a different cultural backdrop and elements of time, Lucy is able to compare, dismiss, and draw her own conclusive ideals based on the premise that the family she's working for are not perfect as originally thought. As she matures, and her life focuses on the realistic ramifications of how things really are in this new environment, we began to see a difference in mannerisms and expression.
Jamaica Kincaid, the author, colors this drama with a unique imagery that forces the reader to dig a little deeper for definitive tones that allow you to understand Lucy's character makeup, and why she thinks as she does. It is this penchant for the subliminal that the author gives this girl, that tend to have you believe that poignancy is a given rather than an afterthought. I found it to be a simple story short on plot, with no conflicting analogies, but allowing the author to speak volumes for a well written expose of differing themes to give it a profound niche. To wit: Kincaid's lilting prose and narrative stylings lend itself to a certain eloquence that you almost forget that this is a story set in the '60s dealing with such things as the mental anguish of leaving a homeland and alienation from familial relations; mother-daughter relations; teenage sexuality and promiscuity; and Lucy's exploration into the art of kissing. But because it reads as a timeless element to what is being portrayed, it's much more than a moot point when subtext makes a case for good writing!
If readers are not familiar with Jamaica Kincaid's style of writing, this could be a novel that would be easily misunderstood, or worse, not read at all lest a point be missed where Lucy's strong voice and individuality emerges as a character of complexity and strength. This book has continually been recommended for reading lists and the recipient of countless English classes. Using the first person singular sort of gives it a believable track where you almost wish that you were in Lucy's shoes to be able to make the decisions she makes. It is my overall feeling that the author used the simplistic approach to delve into the sort of social commentary intentionally avoiding a conventional plot to derive at a surprising ending. Readers will not only be captivated by how Lucy comes to terms with the idiosyncrasies she dealt with, but will be able to resonate within to know that something good came of Lucy's quest to find herself. This is an excellent book, and I recommend it to be read with an open mind and a liberal approach to understanding the world of a teenager dealing with such complexities and being a better woman for it. Read it and learn!
Reviewed by Alvin C. Romer on September 4, 2002