First Section: Pages 3-45 Summary

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Last Updated on December 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

In 1983, the unnamed narrator, now nearly seventy, looks back upon her life. She uses flashbacks and fast-forwards to tell the story of her first love affair, a clandestine relationship with life-long ramifications. She mentally returns to a vision of herself at fifteen and a half, the singular moment of her life in which she still delights. In her mind’s eye, the narrator resumes her life then, imagining that she is leaning on the rail of a ferry crossing the Mekong River in French Indochina. The year is perhaps 1929, and the narrator is dressed in a worn-out, shapeless silk dress that once belonged to her mother, gold lame shoes, and a broad-brimmed man’s hat. Briefly, the narrator interjects from the present, telling readers that she believes her face at fifteen already looked old, though her true aging would occur between eighteen and twenty-five. She believes she has had the same face since she was twenty-five. Her retrospective voice is now established, so the narrator begins to describe the events that led her to meet her lover.

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The narrator lives in the Indochinese city of Sadec, where her mother is a schoolteacher. Though the narrator lives at a boarding school, she takes the ferry to attend a French high school in Saigon. Her mother’s ambition for the narrator is to finish a degree in mathematics, but the narrator only wants to write, a desire her mother does not understand. The narrator has two older brothers, the younger of whom is named Paulo. The eldest brother frequently enrolls in bookkeeping courses but never finishes any. Their father died of an unnamed illness many years ago, shortly after the family arrived in Indochina to seek their fortune. The mother chose to stay back with the children and their long-standing housekeeper, Do. Through a series of bad investments, including buying a huge piece of property, the mother has lost most of the family's money.

On the ferry, the narrator knows that her whiteness, strange clothing, and incorrectly pigmented makeup borrowed from a friend make her stand out. As a white girl in a colony, she is accustomed to sticking out; as a teenage girl, she is also accustomed to grown men sexualizing her. Next to her is a large black limousine helmed by a chauffeur in a white uniform. At the back is a “very elegant looking” Chinese man, who looks with interest at the narrator and leaves his car to approach her. He tells the narrator that she is very beautiful and an unusual sight on the early morning ferry, then asks his driver to bring down the narrator’s bag from the bus and place it in the trunk of his limo. The narrator disembarks from the bus and gets into the black car. She feels distressed but excited at this turn of events.

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The narrator’s poverty and the man’s obvious wealth have something to do with her attraction to him. Since her father’s death, the narrator’s brilliant but depressive mother has struggled to make ends meet. The narrator and Paulo live in genteel poverty, while their older brother, with whom the younger siblings have a tense relationship, divides his time between Paris and Indochina. Getting in the man’s car, the narrator knows she will no longer have to travel to school by bus. For the rest of her time in Indochina, she will have a limo to attend to her.

The man takes the narrator to his quarters in Cholon, “a native housing estate” to the south of the city, where the locals, who are of Vietnamese origin, live. She learns that the man is twelve years older than her and studied in Paris, where he had affairs with many women. He is an heir to an enormous fortune, but his fortune depends on the approval of his ailing and controlling father. Therefore, the man can never marry the narrator, who is white. The narrator tells the man she is as lonely as him and asks him to treat her like he does “the women he brings to his flat.” The man is nervous because the narrator is young and sexually inexperienced, but shortly after, he makes love to her. For the narrator, time seems to be running backward, as if her first sexual encounter prefigured her image on the ferry.

The man tells the narrator that she will remember their afternoon together for the rest of her life, even though she will forget his face and his name. However, in the present, the narrator remembers not just the man’s flat but also everything else about him. In the past, she tells him about her poverty and her difficult relationship with her erratic, ambitious mother.

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Second Section: Pages 46–88 Summary