The novel opens in London, in 1957. Two friends, Anna and Molly, are catching up in Molly's apartment, Molly having recently returned from a trip abroad. While Molly was away, Anna was visited by Molly's ex-husband, Richard. Richard and Molly had been married for a short period of time and have a son together, Tommy. Richard has since remarried to a woman named Marion and has three sons with her. Molly has not remarried, and she has dabbled in a number of careers over time. Richard is expected to call at the apartment, and the women wait for his arrival.
When Richard arrives, he learns with surprise that Anna has told Molly about his visit. Richard explains that he is worried about Tommy since he thinks the boy is too melancholy and spends too much time thinking. Richard and Molly argue, with Richard criticizing the way their son has been raised. Molly in turn argues that Richard is preoccupied with his business and earning money, and that he also treats Marion badly. She points out that Richard has been unfaithful to his wife and has not tried to help Marion with her drinking problem.
Eventually, Richard suggests that Tommy come to stay with him and Marion. Before Molly can respond, Tommy arrives. Tommy tries to explain his reluctance to commit to any particular career path, while his father tries to explain the need to make a living. Tommy mentions that he might be interested in pursuing writing, referring to a series of conversations he has had with Anna about writing. Molly is surprised to learn that her son has had these conversations with her friend. Finally, Richard leaves angrily; Tommy also leaves the room.
Left alone, Molly expresses her hope to Anna that Anna will return to writing since she has produced one novel in the past. Anna tries to change the subject, confiding that she almost had an affair with Richard in the time Molly was away. Molly expresses her regret to be back in England and her desire to go abroad again. Anna shares some news about various mutual friends with Molly, highlighting the ties of the two women to the Communist Party. Anna also states that she recently met up with Michael, her former lover. Finally, Anna decides to go home and leaves her friend affectionately.
Anna returns to her own flat, where she lives with her daughter, Janet. She takes out the four notebooks she regularly writes in.
The opening section of the novel shifts between fairly ordinary domestic concerns and hints that Anna and Molly are unconventional women. In a time where divorce and being a single mother would still have been notable, Anna and Molly appear to be proud of themselves for not having caved to the social pressure of marrying in order to maintain social appearances. Their career choices also heighten this contrast: while Richard is associated with the world of finance and business, Anna and Molly focus on creative pursuits. It is notable that neither woman seems to have an entirely fulfilling or uncomplicated relationship to artistic pursuits. Molly moves between different types of creative work but cannot seem to ever fully commit to one, while Anna has never been able to build on the initial success of her first novel. The narrative seems to be critical of Richard's narrow-minded focus on making money and maintaining appearances, but it also doesn't entirely celebrate the lives Molly and Anna seem to be leading.
As a young man with parents who hold very different ideologies, Tommy serves as someone caught between two different ways of being. His father's connections could give him easy access to a life of wealth and privilege, but Tommy sees the flaws in this type of life, along with the way in which it fails to align with his values. Like his mother and Anna, Tommy seems to want to focus on art and telling the truth, especially in order to achieve social justice and political change. The problem is that, much like Anna and Molly, Tommy seems to struggle with knowing how exactly to do this. Richard is worried because Tommy seems to mostly mope around, getting lost in thought rather than action. Tommy's desire to be a writer coupled with the lack of evidence that he is actually doing any writing foreshadows the ways Anna will wrestle with writer's block and finding her voice throughout the novel.
The opening section also surfaces pointed critiques of marriage and domestic life. Both Molly and Anna seem relieved to have chosen to live as single women, and Richard's second marriage is presented as dysfunctional. Molly and Anna, perhaps because of their position as free women, relate to him in a friendly, intimate, almost man-to-man type of way. They seem to genuinely want to help Richard, but they are also openly critical of his behavior. Richard is not very self-aware and cannot connect his behavior to the impact it has on other people. It is important for him to look the part of a successful businessman with a happy home life, and he accepts the necessity of lying and leading a double life in order to maintain this illusion. Marion's drinking seems to signal that she is not willing to play along with being a good wife who obediently looks the other way; while she expresses it in a different way, she seems to reject the façade of domesticity just as Molly and Anna have.