The lives of several friends are thrown into disarray by the machinations of Julius King. Julius makes a bet with his ex-girlfriend Morgan that he can break up the homosexual couple Axel and Simon; meanwhile, Morgan and her brother-in-law Rupert are tricked into embarking on an affair, and Morgan's nephew Peter is falling in love with her.
The story hinges on the wager that comes half-way through the book when Julius bets Morgan that he will be able to break up Simon and Axel's relationship. The consequences of the wager recall Shakespearean comedy (particularly Much Ado About Nothing), as well as Mozart's operas and the story of Job.
The gap between moral theory and practice is central to the book, and is exemplified by Rupert's inability to withstand temptation, despite having written a book about morality. Julius is a satanic figure, while Tallis is represented as Christ-like, since he absorbs suffering while Julius sows it. The underlying idea, which Murdoch adopted from Simone Weil, is that evil is propagated in the world by the transmission of suffering from one person to another, and that it can only be stopped by someone's being willing accept the suffering without passing it on.
The relationship between Simon and Axel, which survives Julius's attempt to destroy it, is one of many portrayals of homosexuals in Murdoch's novels. According to Philip Hensher, their relationship is "one of the most convincing and warm portrayals of marriage in English fiction".
This copy of the book is a collector's edition printed by Heron Books. It has a few very small marks on the covers and inside pages but is in a generally excellent condition.