Andrew Marlow, by profession a psychiatrist who specializes in mental disorders in creative people, gets a new patient - acclaimed artist Robert Oliver, who has been arrested for attempting to slash a painting in the National Gallery. Other than a few cursory sentences on admission, Robert chooses to remain mute, leaving his doctor with little to go on in treating whatever disorder led Robert to attack the painting. Having been given permission to speak with his patient's ex-wife, or to "anyone", Andrew delves into Robert's history, seeking answers to the mysteries that confront him: why that painting? what is the significance of the packet of antique French letters that Robert brought with him to the hospital? and who is the beautiful dark-haired woman whose image Robert has been painting compulsively for years?
Robert's story, recounted by the women who have shared his life, and the contents of the translated letters spin a complicated tale of obsession and the price of pursuing one's artistic gifts.