Katherine Ashenburg did a great deal of research and travelled to Sweden to seek out settings and talk to locals. The novel portrays two couples: all four are artists, but in the early 20th century, both women give up painting once they marry. According to society, the real (male) artists are owed this by their wives.
The story is strengthened by the fact that both Lars and Nils, the husbands of protagonists Cecilia and Sofie, are loosely based on real Swedish artists.
In an incidental way, this story of a friendship is also a lesson in 20th century European history and society. The main tale, though, is an intimate portrait of two artist's wives, who meet through their husbands and slowly develop their friendship.
As an old woman, Sofie looks back on her marriage to Nils, thinking "Love, the bodily love...had convinced her to accept him. That kind of love had an element of destiny. The love of friendship, on the other hand, felt more like a choice."
In her old age, Cecilia, who is of Jewish ancestry, must watch the rise of Nazism in Germany, where she first studied painting. A rising wave of national fervour in Sweden leaves her feeling somewhat isolated, as her liberal artist friends ignore the impending threat. It is a bitter pill indeed that Cecilia's homeland of Sweden, where she and Lars have spent years of effort and huge sums of money to create a museum to preserve Swedish arts and crafts, is not immune from the demented ideal of national "purity."