Part I opens in the middle of a conversation between Charlie Wales and Alix, a bartender at the Ritz. Charlie asks Alix to pass along his brother-in-law’s address to Duncan Schaeffer. The narrator says that Paris and the Ritz bar feel deserted. Charlie says he has been sober for a year and a half and that he is now a businessman living in Prague. He and Alix gossip about old acquaintances. Charlie says he’s in town to see his daughter.
Charlie gets in a taxi. The Left Bank looks provincial to him, and he wonders whether he’s ruined the city for himself. The narrator tells us that Charlie is a handsome thirty-five-year-old. Charlie goes to his brother-in-law’s house, where his daughter, Honoria, jumps into his arms. Marion Peters, his sister-in-law, greets him without warmth, although his brother-in-law, Lincoln Peters, is friendlier. In a calculated remark, Charlie boasts about how good his finances are these days. Lincoln looks restless, so Charlie changes the subject. Marion says she’s glad there aren’t many Americans left in Paris, and it’s clear that she doesn’t like Charlie.
After eating dinner with the Peters family, Charlie goes to see a famous dancer named Josephine Baker, then to Montmartre, where he passes nightclubs that he recognizes. He sees a few scared tourists go into one club. He thinks about the meaning of dissipation and remembers the vast sums of money he threw away. After ignoring a woman’s advances, he goes home.
Part II begins the following morning. Charlie takes Honoria to lunch. He suggests going to a toy store and then to a vaudeville show. Honoria doesn’t want to go to the toy store because she’s worried they’re no longer rich. Charlie playfully introduces himself to her as if they are strangers. He pretends that her doll is her child, and she goes along with the joke. She says she prefers Lincoln to Marion and asks why she can’t live with Charlie.
Leaving the restaurant, they run into Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, two of Charlie’s friends from the old days. Lorraine says she and her husband are poor now and that she is alone in Paris. They ask Charlie to join them for dinner, but he brushes them off and refuses to tell them where he’s staying. They see each other again at the vaudeville, and he has a drink with them. In the cab on the way home, Honoria says she wants to live with him, which thrills Charlie. She blows him a kiss when she is safely inside the house.
In Part III, Charlie meets with Marion and Lincoln. He says that he wants Honoria to live with him and that he has changed. He says he drinks one drink per day on purpose so that he doesn’t obsess about it ever again. Marion doesn’t understand this, but Lincoln claims that he understands Charlie. Charlie settles in for a long fight, reminding himself that his objective isn’t to justify his behavior but to win Honoria back. Marion says that Charlie hasn’t existed for her since he locked Helen, her sister and Charlie’s wife, out of their apartment. Charlie says Marion can trust him. As it becomes increasingly clear that Marion simply doesn’t like Charlie, he begins to worry that she will turn Honoria against him. He stresses that he will be able to give Honoria a good life and then realizes that Marion and Lincoln don’t want to hear about how much wealthier he is than they are. He craves a drink.
The narrator says that Marion understands Charlie’s wish to be with his daughter but needs to see him as the villain. She implies that Charlie was responsible for Helen’s death. Lincoln objects. Charlie says that heart trouble killed Helen, and Marion sarcastically agrees with him. Suddenly giving up the fight, she leaves the room. Lincoln tells Charlie that he can take Honoria. Back in his hotel room, Charlie thinks of the way he and Helen destroyed their love for no good reason. He remembers the night they fought and she kissed another man; he got home before her and locked her out. There was a snowstorm later, and Helen wandered around in the cold. The incident marked the “beginning of the end.” Charlie falls asleep and dreams of Helen, who says that she wants him and Honoria to be together.
Part IV begins the next morning. Charlie interviews two potential governesses and then eats lunch with Lincoln. He says Marion resents the fact that Charlie and Helen were spending a fortune while she and Lincoln were just scraping along. In his hotel room, Charlie gets a pneumatique (a letter delivered by pneumatic tube) from Lorraine, who reminisces about their drunken pranks and asks to see him at the Ritz bar. The adventures that Lorraine looks back on with fondness strike Charlie as nightmarish.
Charlie goes to Marion and Lincoln’s house in the afternoon. Honoria has been told of the decision and is delighted. The room feels safe and warm. The doorbell rings—it is Lorraine and Duncan, who are drunk. Slurring their words, they ask Charlie to dinner. He refuses twice and they leave angry. Furious, Marion leaves the room. The children eat dinner, and Lincoln goes to check on Marion. When he comes back, he tells Charlie that the plans have changed.
In Part V, Charlie goes to the Ritz bar. He sees Paul, a bartender he knew in the old days. He thinks of the fights that he and Helen had, the people out of their minds on alcohol and drugs, and the way he locked Helen out in the snow. He calls Lincoln, who says that for six months, they have to drop the question of Honoria living with Charlie. Charlie goes back to the bar. He realizes that the only thing he can do for Honoria is buy her things, which he knows is inadequate. He plans to come back and try again.