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In book one, seventeen-year-old Rosemary, a successful new film actress, and her mother arrive at the French coast and stay in a hotel on the beach, where she meets several wealthy, vacationing Americans. She immediately falls in love with one of them; unfortunately for her, Dick Diver is married to Nicole. When Rosemary travels to Paris with a group of the Americans, including Dick, she falls deeper in love and finally confesses her feelings to him; however, Dick repels her advances, blankly telling her of his devotion to his wife. Rosemary continues to show her emotions for the young man, and Dick weakens. The two have several closeted meetings where they kiss and confess their mutual attraction to each. Then, in a hysterical scene, Nicole lets Dick and Rosemary know that she is aware of their relationship.
Book two moves back several years, to the early professional life of Dr. Dick Diver at the end of WWI. He was a promising young psychiatrist and Rhodes Scholar. As a member of the American armed forces, he studied and worked at a psychiatric clinic in Germany, but then was assigned to go to France. As a favor to his friend and colleague, Franz Gregorovius, he continues to correspond with Nicole Warren, an eighteen- year-old female patient at the German clinic. She is a beautiful and wealthy American girl, whose father sexually abused her after her mother's death. When Dick returns to the clinic after a year away, Nicole is much better and is eager to develop a relationship with Dick. Dick is completely charmed by the young Nicole. Upon the advice of Franz and the director of the clinic, Nicole and Dick stop seeing each other.
Later, Dick happens to meet Nicole and her sister, Baby Warren, at a Swiss resort. Nicole is still as infatuated as ever with Dick, and he is again enchanted with Nicole and impressed with her wealth. They see one another regularly. Although Baby is not terribly impressed with Dick, she does think that a young American psychiatrist is just what her younger sister needs in a husband; he will be able to take care of Nicole and her problems. The couple marries and begins traveling. Dick writes books about psychiatry, and Nicole has two children.
At the start of book three, things are going badly at the clinic and Franz's wife is getting tired of the Divers. Even though it is Nicole's money that was used to start the clinic, Franz eases Dick out of it after a series of embarrassing episodes. The Divers return to the villa at Tarmes, and Dick tries to forge a more intense relationship with his children, while ignoring his wife. He drinks excessively and is unpleasant to their friends. He is no longer the sharp, controlled, easy-going Dick. When Rosemary and Tommy Barban show up in Tarmes, Dick makes a fool of himself, going off with her, while Nicole begins a relationship with Tommy, who is eager to rid Nicole of the unwanted Dick. Finally, Tommy informs Dick that his wife no longer loves him. Nicole reminds him that he has not cared for her in a long time. Dick accepts the break-up of the marriage and leaves Tarmes. Nicole marries Tommy, and Dick returns to America. Although he attempts to practice psychiatry again, he goes into a steady decline.