A “very English hotel on the Italian Riviera” has opened after some three years of work, and is finally ready to welcome Jazz Age English-speaking guests such as the haughty Julia Drummond-Ward and her daughter Rose. The hotel is run by Bella Ainsworth with the help of her daughter Alice Mays-Smith. Bella’s husband Cecil is nominally involved, but is often off on some scheme—as he is when his and Bella’s son Lucian meets Rose, a possible match that is the purpose of the Drummond-Wards’ trip to Italy.
Lucian and Rose have already missed their chance at a meet-cute: when he arrived to pick the Drummond-Wards up from the train station, Julia immediately treated him as a common laborer and he obliged. It was only at the hotel that Julia and Rose realized their mistake.
The Drummond-Wards join such other guests as the funereal Lady Latchmere and her niece Melissa De Vere; the Oxford-educated Italian Count Albani and his son Roberto; and Lucian’s close friend Anish Sengupta. They all dine on the cook Betty’s food, which is delicious despite her unfamiliarity with Italian ingredients, and have their luggage carried by Betty’s son Billy.
Betty and Billy are joined on the staff late that evening by Constance March. Constance has suffered some great tragedy, and Betty, who knew Constance’s mother, secured her a job as the nanny for Alice’s daughter Lottie. Constance is grateful for the work and doesn’t wish to impose, so she walked from the train station. Hence her late arrival.
She’s not the only one out in the dark. Cecil returns from Genoa in the wee hours and pockets some of the cash Bella has earned from the hotel before drunkenly approaching Bella in her room. She’s in the process of reading an earnest letter that sounds like it’s from a lover, and sends Cecil off to bed in a separate room.
Later, Bella’s night is again interrupted, this time by cries of pain. She wakes Anish and asks him to attend to Lady Latchmere: she is ailing and he is medically trained. He sits with the lady through the night and suggests to Bella that she begin serving prune juice, and perhaps offer the lady a digestif. Lady Latchmere doesn’t drink, but she can be convinced that limoncello is Italian lemonade—and she quite enjoys it.
Bella noticed another nocturnal wanderer when going to help Lady Latchmere: Lucian was only just returning to the hotel. He and Anish had gone swimming with a bottle of wine, and then he begged off to take a walk in the garden—and instead went to the room of one of the hotel’s servants.
Bella and Anish both are worried about Lucian. He was badly injured in the First World War, and while his physical wounds are healing he is not the man he once was. Bella fears Lucian has lost his sense of purpose. It’s part of why she bought the hotel, which she fell in love with on her honeymoon: so that the family could have a fresh start. Lucian is a talented painter like his mother once was, but he hasn’t taken up a brush in a while.
Cecil believes painting is a waste of time—until the stylish American Jack Turner arrives at the hotel in a flashy car and admires Lucian’s paintings, which hang on the walls. He tells Cecil that he has helped collectors buy and sell artwork before, and Cecil is drawn to the scent of money. Later, he interrogates Jack further and learns that the real fortune is in Renaissance art and its authentication. He sends a telegram to an unknown person about a plan to make them rich.
He needs the money: he has run through all that was left for him in his family trust, which is why he is stealing from Bella. She knows what he’s doing, and has confronted him about it.
Want of money is part of why Cecil wants Lucian to marry Rose, whose father is rich. (Alice is bitter that her father is paying so much attention to her brother’s marriage but cares little about hers.) Rose’s mother Julia is in on the scheme—she and Cecil used to be a couple. So far, however, Lucian has managed only to frighten away the sweet-hearted Rose by trying to show her a cicada. She hates bugs.
Lucian seems more drawn to Constance. In addition to caring for Lottie, Constance will also help out at the hotel, but Bella surmises that she doesn’t read very well after she looks perplexed by a menu. So Bella sends a reluctant Lucian to help Constance with her letters. He condescendingly starts her off with the ABCs. She finishes his writing exercise and leaves him a note: I may not know “eggs benedict,” but I do know my ABCs. The implied sarcasm makes Lucian smile.
Another woman at the hotel is drawing the attention of men. Jack’s companion, Claudine, goes to bathe in the ocean in a striking—and scanty for the 1920s—swimsuit. She is watched approvingly by Roberto Albani, who is joined by Vincenczo Danioni and some toughs. Given that Danioni’s first question is whether Roberto is a member of the Fascist Party—Roberto is considering joining—he can’t be up to any good.
And he’s not. When Bella writes a letter that she sends to the post via a servant because she doesn’t want Cecil to see it, a man intercepts the servant and offers to carry it into town for her; she accepts. He then brings it to Danioni, who pays him for the trouble.
Danioni later appears at the hotel and asks to speak to Bella in private. He says he’s a member of the communal council, and that he knows everything that goes on in the area. He shows Bella her letter, warning that she probably doesn’t want it to be seen by just anyone. She agrees, and asks him what he wants. What we all want, he replies. Money.