(1990) is Jamaica Kincaid’s semi-autobiographical novel of a young woman’s flight from her Caribbean island childhood and family. Driven to self-imposed exile by her intense relationship with her mother, Lucy Potter embarks on a journey to reinvent herself in an urban American landscape that recalls New York City. She discovers, however, that her angry, defiant embrace of everything contrary to her upbringing doesn’t free her to find her true self. Because she acts out of opposition to others’ desires, not on behalf of her own, Lucy remains unfulfilled.
Nineteen-year-old Lucy emigrates from the West Indies to the USA in 1969 to nanny the four daughters of Mariah and Lewis, an affluent white couple. Lucy arrives in January. The cold, grim atmosphere of the northern city that will be her home disappoints Lucy’s expectations. Observing the unfamiliar surroundings with detachment, Lucy is surprised to feel sudden homesickness for the warm island life she abandoned with such eagerness. Having experienced a sense of isolation in her girlhood home, especially after her younger brothers hi-jacked her mother’s attention, Lucy had long-dreamed of forging her own path in the U.S. However, living with this golden-haired family in their world of privilege and seeming perfection, Lucy feels alienated and resentful.
Although Lucy’s reserved, humorless demeanor inspires Lewis to dub her the “Poor Visitor,” she develops a fondness for Mariah, mixed though it is with disdain. Generous, affectionate, and well-intentioned, Mariah treats Lucy not as an employee, but as one of her own daughters. Lucy often identifies Mariah with her mother. When spring comes, Mariah is excited to introduce Lucy to her favorite flower: daffodils. The sight of the yellow blooms repulses Lucy. As a schoolgirl receiving a British colonial education, she was required to memorize a poem by Wordsworth about the alien flower, thus privileging it over all the native Caribbean flowers. The experience made her hate daffodils.
Mariah organizes a trip to her childhood home near the Great Lakes, eager to share with her daughters and Lucy the joy it gives her. Lucy, the novel’s first-person narrator, muses, “Mariah wanted all of us, the children and me, to see things the way she did. She wanted us to enjoy the house […] just the way she had done as a child.” Such expectation, however, triggers Lucy’s resistance as it reminds her of her own mother’s efforts to influence her: “I had come to feel that my mother’s love for me was designed solely to make me into an echo of her and […] I felt that I would rather be dead than become just an echo of someone.”
Lucy considers her mother, Annie, a subservient “echo” of the rules – especially those designed to control women – imposed by the British government on West Indians. Annie repeatedly admonished Lucy to behave properly or risk being seen as a “slut,” even as Lucy’s father indulged in avid philandering. Furthermore, her parents earmarked all their savings for their sons’ university education in England, while expecting her to study nursing. Determined to assert her own identity, Lucy left home but discovers that with distance, the memories of her mother threaten to overpower her. Accordingly, she refuses to read the letters Annie sends, and she strikes up a friendship with Annie’s antithesis, Peggy, a woman who enjoys sex and smoking.
Though Mariah and Lewis appear to lead an idyllic life, there is trouble in paradise. Lucy notices that they argue more frequently. A squabble over attracting rabbits to the yard turns ugly when Lewis, perhaps intentionally, crushes one with the family car. The couple’s increasingly imperfect union prompts Lucy’s recollections of her past sexual, but loveless relationships.
Summer arrives and the family travels back to the lake house. This time, Lewis joins them, as does Mariah’s haughty friend, Dinah. While Dinah hardly acknowledges Lucy’s presence, Dinah’s tag-along brother, Hugh, takes a fancy to her. Eventually, Hugh and Lucy find a private patch of grass where they enjoy a little conversation that leads to a great deal of sex. Later, Lucy inadvertently witnesses Lewis and Dinah embracing intimately. When the vacation ends, Lucy is happy to go. Although she likes Hugh, she knows she does not love him.
Back in the city, Lucy and Peggy go to a lively party where they smoke marijuana and meet Peggy’s co-worker, Paul. Peggy warns Lucy against Paul, calling him a “creep,” but Lucy heedlessly jumps into a relationship with him, which, once again, is mainly an exercise in sex. Meanwhile, with Mariah’s nudging, Lucy develops an interest in photography and takes a trip to the camera store. In short order, she and the store owner are rolling in the hay. Afterward, she returns to Paul, who professes his love for her, but she feels no attachment to him.
Lucy’s sexual exploits are not matters of the heart, but efforts to make herself “other” from her mother. Indeed, as Lucy confesses to Mariah, her “only true love” is her mother, but her mother betrayed her by allying herself with an ideology that suppresses women. Mariah, feeling betrayed, as well, initiates a divorce from Lewis.
When Lucy receives a letter from Annie marked “Urgent,” she adds it to her pile of unopened letters, only to learn later that it contains news of her father’s death and her mother’s destitution. Lucy mails money to Annie, along with a trenchant letter cataloging her complaints against her mother. Having unleashed her rage in the letter, Lucy feels finished with Annie, as well as Mariah. She and Peggy rent an apartment together, and Lucy takes a job with a photographer. Although she suspects Peggy and Paul are sleeping together, Lucy feels indifferent about it. Lucy is lonely.
is not strictly autobiographical, Jamaica Kincaid has much in common with the eponymous heroine of her novel. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949, Kincaid grew up on the island of Antigua adoring her mother. Like Lucy, Kincaid’s relationship with her mother deteriorated, and she left Antigua to be an au pair in the U.S. By the 1970s, she was writing for magazines and re-named herself. Kincaid’s 1985 novel, Annie John
, detailing a girl’s life in Antigua, is also highly autobiographical.