Trinidad teen journeys to America in 1989, only to find herself trapped in thankless domestic drudgery.
At 16, Grace leaves behind her small island village, her crippled diabetic father, her devout born-again mother and her younger sister. Upon arrival in New York City, the cousin who had promised to meet her flight doesn’t show. She ends up in Brooklyn staying with Sylvia, a matronly woman she met at a Crown Heights street fair. But Sylvia’s apartment is crowded and toxic: Lead paint peels off the walls, and one of Sylvia’s three children is displaying neurological symptoms. Grace finds a nanny position in a Manhattan high rise with a Jewish couple, Miriam and Sol Bruckner. Her duties extend far beyond minding 3-year-old Ben Bruckner. In return for a bed near the washing machine and $200 a week (often less), she’s expected to do all the household chores, cooking and laundry. Sol is passive-aggressive and may have had an affair with a previous West Indian employee, and Miriam alternately praises Grace and berates her for trivial infractions of arbitrary rules. The Bruckners agree to sponsor Grace for a green card but evade Grace’s questions about the progress of her application. Grace finds solace among her fellow nannies, who, with their charges, convene daily at the playground in Union Square. Her friend Kathy, also from Trinidad, but from a wealthier family, introduces Grace to the nightclub scene. Dave, the gay man who occupies the penthouse of the Bruckners’ building, seeks her help with his indoor tropical garden and becomes, besides Kathy, her sole trusted confidant. By age 18, Grace has learned dispiriting truths about almost everyone in her new home.
Despite lyrical prose, the narrative does not develop so much as unravel according to vagaries of chance. The Bruckners’ casual cruelty beggars belief, but Grace’s inability to fight back is even more implausible. However, Brown is a new voice with much to offer.