Cécile (say-SEEL), the narrator, a seventeen-year-old girl who is spending the summer in the south of France with her father and his mistress. Just prior to the vacation, she had failed her baccalauréat, the state exam that ends the French secondary school cycle and symbolizes a degree of social as well as academic respectability for the student who passes it.
Raymond, the narrator’s father, a seductive, forty-year-old widower whose overwhelming charm appears alternately as a strength and a weakness. Cécile loves her father precisely for those qualities that lead him to manipulate, and be manipulated by, women: his emphasis on physical beauty (his own and other people’s) and his constant desire to seek validation in the love and admiration of others.
Elsa Mackenbourg, Raymond’s mistress, a pale, red-haired woman who lives off of her beauty. Neither a fashion model nor a prostitute, she occupies a gray area between respectability and disrepute. She clearly is the intellectual inferior of the other characters in the novel, especially Anne Larsen.
Anne Larsen, whose arrival at the summer house at the beginning of the novel sets the plot into motion. When Cécile’s mother died fifteen years earlier, her father entrusted her to Anne, who was one of the mother’s closest friends. As a result, Anne had an enormous impact on Cécile’s early childhood, nurturing in her an admiration for cultural sophistication and understated elegance (she works in the fashion industry). She presents a physical contrast (older, darker) as well as an intellectual and spiritual contrast to Elsa.
Cyril, a twenty-six-year-old law student who initiates an innocent summer romance with Cécile, then falls in love with her. Although he is substantially older than Cécile and seduces her rather forcefully into losing her virginity, there is a strong sense that she is superior to him in many respects: more intelligent, a better strategist, and less sentimental.