The story focuses on the lives of Catherine Alexander and Noelle Page, and takes place before, during, and after World War II.
Noelle is an extremely beautiful girl born to a poor family living in the fishing district of Marseille, France. Because of her beauty, her father constantly calls her a princess and she grows up believing that a prince will take her away. After Noelle comes of age, her father decides to capitalize on her looks by arranging her to become the mistress of Auguste Lanchon, a wealthy boutique owner. Noelle is horrified when she finds out their deal, and is forced to have sex with Lanchon. During the intercourse, she realizes that men may rule the world, but if she can control men, she can be just as powerful. She manipulates Lanchon to give her a sum of money, and then escapes to Paris. There, she is swept off her feet by American RAF pilot Lawrence "Larry" Douglas, who proposes to her before leaving for another mission, promising to marry her when he returns. However, when he doesn't return, she finds out that he has forgotten about her and is with other women, she nearly dies of pneumonia, but is saved by a Jewish medical intern named Israel Katz, who takes pity on her and gives her money and a job in his aunt's modelling agency.
Catherine was born to a kind and ambitious but unsuccessful father, and her mother died when she was young, leaving Catherine without a maternal figure to help her understand beauty and sexuality. She is well known in college as a good writer with a knack in making funny comebacks, but because she has never slept with anyone, other girls avoid her, with rumors spreading that she is a lesbian. Following her father's death and an embarrassing attempt to sleep with a famous athlete in her university, she moves to Washington, D.C., and works as a secretary for William "Bill" Fraser, a political figure. Despite their hostile first meeting, they fall in love and she loses her virginity to him, but she is frustrated because she cannot climax with him and is bored during their intercourse. Bill delegates one of his jobs to Catherine, where she meets RAF pilot Lawrence Douglas, whom she initially dislikes. However, he easily charms her despite her knowing how much of a womanizer he is, and she accepts his proposal and they marry immediately, much to Bill's disappointment. He warns Catherine to be careful.
Unknown to anyone, Noelle is still furious at Larry for fooling her, and is hell-bent on taking revenge. She hires a private investigator named ''Christian barbet'', and when she learns that Larry married Catherine, she swears revenge on him, Catherine, and his unborn child with Noelle herself. She sadistically takes good care of the baby, and then self-aborts him only when she is sure he will feel pain, much to Katz's horror, who saves her from dying of hemorrhage just in time. She begins her plan by seducing famous French actor-singer Philippe Sorel and becomes his mistress. When Philippe surprises her by announcing their engagement in front of all their guests during a party, she leaves him for world-renowned director, Armand Gautier, who becomes obsessed with her and trains her to become a world-class actress under the silent threat of her leaving if he doesn't. Noelle pauses on her plan to help Katz, the only man who has ever helped her and showed her kindness for nothing in return, during World War II, when the Germans have invaded France. Katz is wanted by the Gestapo for being the Jewish rebel " Le Cafard " (The Cockroach), and needs her help to escape Paris. She seduces a high-ranking Gestapo officer, and during their trip to Etratat, she successfully smuggles him to a pier, where his friends and followers escape to Africa.
After the war, Noelle's popularity has made her open a saloon and attracts the attention of Constantin "Costa" Demiris, a wealthy and powerful Greek whose business extends to every industry in the world. She becomes his mistress and moves to his private island and villa. Costa is married, but loathes his wife because he blames her for the death of their first child and for her being incapable of getting pregnant again, and openly dates other women to spite her. Now controlling one of the most powerful men in the world, Noelle decides it is time to seek revenge on Larry, and convinces Costa to hire him as a private pilot. She is aware through her private investigator that Larry is a struggling commercial pilot because his rough World War II piloting skills are unnecessary for commercial airlines and he is impolite and rude to his co-pilots who did not fly in the war. She arranges for Larry and Catherine to live in Greece, but when she meets Larry for the first time, Larry genuinely cannot remember her. She is upset that her plan is not proceeding as she hoped but is determined to make him suffer. She treats him poorly, and reaches his breaking point when she strips off her bathroom towel and dresses in front of him, and he rapes her. Noelle gets excited, and reminds him how they first met. Larry cannot remember, but he wants Noelle because of the power she has, and they agree to start an affair. However, when he sees that Larry's other girlfriend and his co-pilot who knows about their affair suddenly disappear, he begins to realize how obsessed Noelle is with him.
Meanwhile, Larry and Catherine's marriage is falling apart, and Catherine becomes fat and an alcoholic. Noelle convinces Larry to divorce Catherine, but she refuses. Noelle decides that Catherine should die, and they plot to have her killed. Larry pretends to love Catherine, and she recovers and loses weight, and they go on a vacation. However, Larry deliberately abandons Catherine inside the caves, where she collapses from the cold and exhaustion. She hears Larry and Noelle talking, and Larry is seen by the coast guard exiting alone. To avoid suspicion, Larry asks for help, and Catherine survives because of this. When she wakes up, she tries to tell the doctors about Larry and Noelle, who dismiss it as a hallucination, and that it was Larry who called for help, and they medicate her. Under the influence of anesthetic, she overhears Larry and Noelle again plotting her death and knew that she had been right all along. She escapes from the house during a heavy thunderstorm and goes into a boat, but she falls out far away from the shore.
Because of the evidence against them, Larry and Noelle are charged with Catherine's murder, and their affair is publicized. The men in Noelle's life (Auguste Lanchon, Philippe Sorel, Armand Gautier, Israel Katz) are present, watching her trial, while Bill Fraser is there for Catherine's justice. A sick-looking Costa visits Noelle in jail, saying that he hated her when he found out about their relationship, but realizes that he loves her and tells her that he will use his power to get her out. On the last day of the trial, Costa's lawyer, Napoleon Chotas, informs Larry, Noelle, and Larry's lawyer Starvos about a deal Costa had made with the court: if they plead guilty, Larry will be sent back to America to serve three months in jail and will not be allowed to return to Greece while Noelle's passport will be taken from her, and she will live in Costa's villa forever. Larry is no longer attracted to Noelle while Noelle decides that she wants to live even if it means staying away from Larry, and they agree to plead guilty. However, they realize that they are tricked when the judge admits that the case against them was weak because the body was never found, and that they would have been released if they had not changed their pleas to guilty. They are sentenced to death, and as Noelle walks out, she sees a healthy-looking Costa looking pleased. Noelle and Larry are executed, with Noelle wishing to see her father one last time.
Meanwhile, Costa donates a large sum of money to a convent near the sea. He is introduced to their latest member, a woman who was found on the shore with no memory at all. In the prologue of the novel, he reminded himself to take note of Catherine's favorite flower, and gives the same flower to the woman, implied to be Catherine, and tells her that all the bad people are gone.