Dr Yalom's novel is set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, on the eve of the birth of psychoanalysis. The main characters are the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Dr Joseph Bauer, one of the founders of psychoanalysis, and a then young (the year is 1882) medical intern called Sigmund Freud. As these protagonists discuss their ideas, preoccupations and frustrations, they create an original plot of a fictional relationship between an exceptional analysand and a talented analyst. As the fictional dialogue between Breuer and Nietzsche unfolds, the reader becomes aware of the fact that at this epoch it must have been the first time that a doctor realised that what mattered is not what a patient said but that he said it. These were truly the first steps towards psychotherapy. Breuer's task was not made easy by Nietzsche's character. His social fears and his misanthropy made him select an impersonal and distant style. His tone was often harsh and brittle, particularly when he talked about his deceptive lover, Lou Salomé, a woman Nietzsche actually met in the spring of 1882. The unpleasant experience he had with this one and only love affair made him resentful towards women. He felt that they corrupted and spoiled him, he avoided them because he thought that he was ill suited for them. This partly explains Nietzsche's total isolation, his feeling of belonging nowhere, having no lover, no circle of friends, no home, no family hearth, his life sounding like a hollow echo.
A wonderful achievement showing sad and troubled characters in an intriguing cross-discussion of philosophy and emerging psychotherapy, yet as gripping to read as a detective story.