The stories in the first portion of this book narrate love, the principal source of inspiration to live and reason for being. Some of the finest writers have written about love at first sight and first love; then gradually, as one grows older, another perspective on life develops. Under the surface of romanticized love tales lie the real-life dramas that inevitably occur in everyone's life. These dramas evolve due to commitments in relationships that never or rarely stay fresh, vibrant, or perfectly happy. Instead, the partners are tormented in their relationship by feelings of regret about love long lost, while languishing in the existing relationship.
The relationship between Sonya Tolstaya and her husband Leo Tolstoy, the Great Russian writer, is particularly telling. The spouse and husband drive each other to despair, even insanity at times, escalating in frequent suicidal thoughts and attempts. Their tormented mental state is described in their diaries and reflected in their respective novels. In "The Kreutzer Sonata," based on the acrimony prevailing in his own marriage, Tolstoy assassinates the wife of his protagonist. Sonya Tolstaya responds by revealing her incredible mental suffering in two phenomenal novellas of her own; both of which remained unpublished for over a hundred years. In each of her stories, the protagonist is killed by her jealous husband, although the spouse never committed adultery.
The stories in the second part of this book describe what Sonya Tolstaya thought of her husband. She narrates from her memoirs in a series of interviews, occasionally resembling psychotherapeutic sessions. The author puts Sonya Tolstaya on the couch so she can look back on her life and try to unravel what happened to her, why it happened, and what her advice is to new generations. It quickly becomes clear that there is a much broader perspective on the meaning of being, beyond first love and the dénouement of youthful love.
The stories in the third part of this book explore why writers do what they do and what writers want us – the readers – to know. There is a special focus on two interrelated questions: (1) What is the meaning of being? (2) How can we write meaningfully about it? In the case of Leo Tolstoy and Sonia Tolstaya, the mutual misunderstanding and misfit of their beings are eloquently documented 'in between the lines' of their prose and diaries, all of which were written with a sense of sending a message to future generations. Their marriage saw many crises, each one hurting more than the one before, hardening their stance, and sharpening their pens.