Lucy Josephine Potter was born on May 25, 1949, in the West Indies —most likely on the island of Antigua. She is an only child until age nine, which is when the first of her three brothers is born. Lucy idolizes her mother throughout her childhood. That changes when she realizes that her mother has high aspirations for her brothers but doesn't think Lucy will amount to much because of her gender. From then on, Lucy burns with equal measures of love and hatred for her mother, whom she no longer trusts. As her rebellious teenage years draw to a close, Lucy immigrates to the United States in January 1968 to become an au pair for Mariah and Lewis. With no idea about what she wants from her life, Lucy focuses on one thing: trying to forget the past that led her to flee her family. Lucy is not a happy person. She has a contrary view of things others would find pleasant and is more likely to snap at someone than compliment them. She is the opposite of sunny and kind Mariah, whom she grows to love as a friend and maternal figure. Restless and eager to put the past behind her, Lucy leaves Mariah's employ in January 1969 to make her way in the world on her own terms.
Blond and lighthearted Mariah is a white woman from a privileged and affluent family. Her home is filled with precious objects, but she looks forward to a summer spent away from her family's house on one of the Great Lakes. Now the mother of four daughters, Mariah was a free spirit in her younger days, with long, unkempt hair and unshaven legs. Although more buttoned-up now, she has retained the socially conscious outlook that characterized the mid- to late-1960s. Feminism, equality, and the environment are important issues to her even though she has trouble seeing how her own actions and social status are the result of the oppression and exploitation of others throughout history to the present day. Mariah considers herself to be more enlightened than most Americans, but to Lucy she seems practically blind to her country's ills.
Lucy's mother is portrayed only through Lucy's words and memories, so it's hard to get an accurate read on her personality and her past. For the first two-thirds of Lucy, readers understand her to be a controlling parent whom Lucy could not wait to escape. However, the last third of the novel depicts a kind, caring woman who loves her daughter unconditionally and speaks sharply only when stressed by the duties of motherhood. Despite their tenuous relationship, Lucy's mother wants nothing more than for her daughter to come home.