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The novel opens with an aerial view of a posh, "rose-colored" beachfront hotel on the French Riviera.
The area around it is now crowded with cottages, but at the beginning of the story about to be told, there are only a few decaying structures between the hotel, Gausse’s Hotel des Etrangers, and the nearby city of Cannes.
Now the narrative shifts to the past, June of 1925. A lady and her daughter show up at the hotel. The mother is pretty, but the daughter is prettier, with an impressive head of curly blond hair. She’s almost eighteen.
They decide they don’t dig the hotel because it won’t be exciting enough and plan to stay for about three days.
After being shown to their room, the daughter hits the beach, and is blinded by the sun and the Mediterranean Sea.
Rosemary (the daughter) goes into the water and swims. When she looks back, she notices a bald guy with a monocle checking her out. She catches his eye and he stops looking and pours himself a drink.
Rosemary swims out to a raft in the sea, and when a tan lady looks down at her from on top of it, she floats back to the beach.
Back on shore, the monocle guy tells her that there are sharks past the raft, and that "two British sailors" got gobbled up by them. After she responds with alarm, he "mince[s]" back to his booze.
Rosemary wants to relax on the beach. Even though she doesn’t really like the monacled guy, she’s happy somebody noticed her.
One side of the beach has people with tans and the other has non-tans, like her. She sits somewhere in between them.
She hears an older lady, still dressed from last night’s partying, talking to some other un-tan people about how a man called "North" abducted a waiter with intent to saw him in half.
Rosemary prefers the (tan) folks on the other side of her. She sees a younger lady, wearing pearls, under a bunch of umbrellas, making a list from a book.
They look at each other, but the lady doesn’t seem to "see" her.
Now Rosemary sees a "fine" guy with a "jockey cap" on his head, the lady from the raft, and a man with a blond mane. He’s talking deeply to a "Latin" guy. She thinks they are Americans, but different from any she’s known recently.
Now she sees that the jockey cap guy is the star of the show and puts on a real comedy act. He makes everybody laugh except the pearl necklace lady, who just gets closer to her list whenever the guy makes another joke.
Now the monocle guy compliments Rosemary on her swimming and introduces himself as Campion.
Then she’s irritated to see the people with no tans want to talk to her. She finds them less appealing than the tan people, but goes over anyway, and gets introduced to Mrs. Abrams, Mr. and Mrs. McKisco, and Mr. Dumphrey.
The same lady that she first heard talking says they recognized her as the actress Rosemary Hoyt, and that they wanted to warn her not to get sunburned, but were afraid she might get mad.