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The novel opens in New York City, in the same summer that the infamous Rosenbergs were executed (that's 1953, for those of you a little fuzzy on your American history).
The unnamed narrator is one of twelve college students who has won an all-expenses-paid internship at a fashion magazine. The magazine job comes with a lot of perks like free makeup and concert tickets, but the narrator doesn't feel particularly lucky or successful. Instead, she can't help obsessing over the Rosenbergs and the gruesome details of their execution.
The narrator stays at the Amazon, a residence for young, professional women, with the other interns.
She has two friends in particular who also intern at the magazine: Doreen and Betsy. Doreen is a witty and sophisticated southerner; Betsy is a sweet, wholesome girl from Kansas with a fondness for stories about corn.
Doreen and Betsy don't get along, so when they leave for a party, the narrator hops in a cab with Doreen.
At a traffic light, a man dressed in Western garb (think Owen Wilson in The Royal Tanenbaums) comes up to their cab and invites them out for a drink. They accept, and they follow the man and his much shorter friend into a bar.
Doreen is indifferent at first, but quickly warms to the man when he tells them that he's Lenny Shepard, a famous DJ.
As Lenny puts the moves on Doreen, his friend, Franky, tries to get to know the narrator. She tells him (falsely) that her name is Elly Higginbottom, from Chicago.
Franky gets up to go, and asks Lenny for the money he owes him. Lenny pays him, and tells him to beat it.
Lenny then invites Doreen and the narrator, who is now called Elly, over to his place. They accept.