The novel opens at a very precise date, time, and place: September 15, 1840 at 6:00AM on the river Seine in Paris.
Our protagonist, Frederick Moreau, has just boarded a boat full of activity. He's on his way home to Nogent-sur-Seine to see his mother (yawn) before he returns to Paris to study law.
He's just been to Le Havre, where he was supposed to charm his uncle into leaving him his entire fortune—but it's not looking good.
Frederick spends a lot of time thinking about what he wants and deserves—"future loves"—and pleasing his "noble soul." Yeah, get used to this kind of language.
He observes a man flirting with a peasant girl. The man is pretty bold in his come-on and doesn't seem to care that Frederick is watching him.
Soon, the man talks to Frederick, basically letting Frederick know that he's a man of the world—well-traveled, well-connected, and so on. This man is "Jacques Arnoux, proprietor of L'Art Industriel, Boulevard Montmarte" (1:15). Sounds fancy.
Arnoux is called away, and Frederick's attention is drawn to a goddess (of sorts) sitting in first class. She's so hot, it's almost like a hallucination. As he describes her: "She wore a wide straw hat with red ribbons, which fluttered in the wind behind her." (1.1.24)
Frederick fixates on all of the details of her clothing, her dark eyebrows, the folds of her dress… he is fascinated, imagining where she is from and what her name is. This guy is smitten.
As luck would have it, he gets the opportunity to rescue her shawl from falling into the water, and he uses that event to talk to her.
Her husband (Arnoux) returns and invites Frederick to lunch with them. Again, Frederick fixates on every detail of her appearance, right down to her eyelashes.
Frederick gets anxious because he knows they will soon part, and he's dying for an invitation to meet again. Meanwhile, he's trying to charm their pesky daughter, Marthe.
Getting home to Mom's house (in Nogent) is a bit of a let down; plus, his Mom is all over him with hopes for the future and all of her own ambitions for her son: he has to be an ambassador, a minister. You know, all sorts of things that aren't on his mind.
Right now, it's all about Marie.
There's a lot of discussion among guests about who has what estate and what's going on with everyone's financial affairs.
His Mom is disappointed that his visit to his uncle didn't provide solid evidence that he would receive an inheritance.
And with that, our main squeeze decides to take off to visit his childhood friend, Charles Deslauriers.