Royce is seventy and dying. Founder of the Lushington Foundation, a Harvard fellowship for ‘Extraordinary Women’, he decides to write to Vita, one of the foundation’s past beneficiaries. He suggests a game of mutual confession, each the other’s ‘receptive reader’. They will pass the confessional baton, email by email, unveiling a passage of their lives they wish to unburden themselves of. Seventeen years earlier, tired by his expectation that beneficiaries should flatter and humour him, Vita had requested never to hear from Royce again. And yet she agrees and they begin to write.
Although it funds the advancement of women, Royce’s foundation was not born from altruism but from a perverse arrogance, providing money for women in whom Royce believed he alone saw something special. The foundation is named after Kitty Lushington, one of Royce’s peers when he was at Harvard, with whom he became progressively obsessed. She was his first unofficial beneficiary: as a college student, he bought her gifts and funded her trips. The first image Royce introduces of Kitty is also the last, chronologically, a ‘single, painful frame of her standing at the rim of Vesuvius’. But, he writes, we must start at the beginning.