Halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, on the southern coast of France, stands a small hotel on a lovely beach. The site is beautiful, rather deserted, and hot in the summer of 1925, though it will not remain so for long. Rosemary Hoyt, almost eighteen and an emerging American movie star, arrives at the hotel with her mother, Mrs. Speers. Sure that they will not stay long, Rosemary heads down to the beach while her mother tries to rest. Rosemary spies two parties on the beach, one made up of tanned, attractive and interesting people, who seem to belong, and the other of just the opposite kind of people. Rosemary sets herself down between the two groups and is disappointed to note that a member of the paler group approaches her first. She politely, but reluctantly, joins their party.
The party greets Rosemary with a joke about the "plot," initiated by Violet McKisco, a joke which seems to irritate her husband, Albert. Violet explains that her husband is an intellectual who is working on a novel based on the theme of Ulysses. She describes him as an important intellectual and boasts that they met, upon their arrival to Europe, all of the important European intellectuals. Yet Violet and her pale party, which also includes the heavy and effeminate Campion, have been snubbed by the tanned party; Violet refers to their exclusivity as being part of the "plot." Rosemary falls asleep in the sun to avoid any more discussion and wakes up, sunburned, to the voice of Dick Diver saying he was about to wake her. He is part of the tanned party. They look into each other's eyes and Rosemary, somewhat girlishly, later announces to her mother that she has fallen in love.
The next day, since Rosemary is too sunburned to go to the beach, she and her mother hire a car and drive around Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo. The magic of these areas, and of the Russian aristocracy, which used to enjoy them before the revolution a decade before, colors their day. The next morning, Dick Diver greets Rosemary upon her arrival to the beach and asks her to join their party. Rosemary, delighted, marvels at the beauty of Nicole Diver and at the refinement and grace of her group, but she also notes their exclusivity as they joke about the people around them. Rosemary learns that Dick and Nicole created this beach community, and that the Divers live in the Villa Diana at Tarmes, overlooking the ocean. Rosemary sizes up the men: Abe North, a brilliant musician turned alcoholic, accompanied by his kind wife Mary, and Tommy Barban, the seasoned mercenary. She finds them lacking beside Dick. He, in turn, admires the blooming quality of her youth, and she cries to her mother that night how much she loves him.
These first few chapters introduce the reader to the world of this novel. The novel begins with rich descriptions of the Mediterranean coast of France. Much of the novel tackles the differences between Americans and Europeans, and from the start Fitzgerald refers to Europe as more ancient than America. The narrator makes it quite clear, however, that the story takes place at a crucial time for this particular region. Some years before, it had been a popular summer spot for Europeans; now it is becoming a hot spot again, largely for Americans. The singularity of this time period and the knowledge that it must pass is a prevalent theme of the novel.
The Divers, the subjects of this book, live in perfect harmony with this older world, despite the fact that they are American. As the center of a wonderful, tanned group, which seems to "belong" on the beach, the Divers are presented in contrast to the "pale," alien McKisko group, who represent the new class of Americans.
The novel begins with Rosemary Hoyt who, having been born in America and raised in France, straddles the two worlds represented by the Murphy and McKisko groups. Rosemary's response to each of the two groups carries with it an implicit judgment: she respectfully spurns the McKisko's and falls in love with Dick.