Two men from Bern who can no longer trust their hands—one is a recently retired surgeon who can't hold a scalpel without trembling and the other can't hold a steering wheel without contemplating suicide—meet by chance in a cafe in Provence.
Both are also wifeless fathers to grown daughters from whom they are estranged, or worse. Adrian Herzog, the novel’s narrator, soon learns that his new acquaintance, Martijn van Vliet, is reeling from his daughter Lea’s death. The strangers quickly bond as van Vliet tells the story of Lea’s descent due to an unnamed mental illness, beginning with the time the father and then-8-year-old girl encountered an enigmatic masked woman playing the violin in a train station. As they listened, van Vliet grew convinced that this woman’s playing had managed to pierce the armor of grief his young daughter had worn since her mother’s death a year earlier. He concludes that in this moment a "new will had formed" inside her, a will toward life, betraying her intense desire to learn to play the violin. Her knack for the instrument develops into an obsession for the pair and eventually a glamorous career for Lea—that is, until her breakdown. Van Viet tells his story with the fear that what he once considered the only way for his daughter to overcome her grief may well have been what destroyed her. Above all, he's desperate to believe in his own innocence as a father and finds in Herzog an exceedingly eager and compassionate listener. The relationship that develops between the two men is well-wrought and their subtle affinities numerous, but the book lacks a probing analysis of the father-daughter relationship. Van Vliet admits that he imagined his daughter "a fairy by nature," and her characterization is reminiscent of Romantic tropes: a precocious prodigy, a frigid and fragile "countess…unaware of her aura." Needless to say, she doesn’t speak much in her father’s tale, apart from uttering imperious commands in French. The moments later meant to signify her mental break fall flat, even in scenes meant to depict her rage. This lack is exacerbated by moments of sexist and racist outbursts from the protagonist. For instance, van Vliet says of a co-worker: "I destroyed Ruth Adamek, who had never forgiven me for not falling for her miniskirt," and frequently refers to his daughter’s psychologist as "the Maghrebi" who would cast him "black, Arab looks."
Despite Mercier’s (Perlmann’s Silence, 2012, etc.) lyricism and occasional emotional acuity, the book's depiction of suffering does little to elaborate its closing observation that "there is unhappiness of a dimension so great that it is unbearable."