“The Woman On The Stairs” by Bernhard Schlink – Book Review

One upon a time there was a wealthy man named Peter Gundlach who had a beautiful wife named Irene. He commissioned artist Karl Schwind to paint her portrait. Irene took a liking to the artist and left her husband for him. The artist wants his painting back, or at the very least to be able to see it. He hires a lawyer (our unnamed narrator) to ensure that he will be allowed to view the painting again. When he does he sees that it is defaced. He offers to repair it and does so. Then, once again, the painting is defaced in another way. Frustrated he wants to buy the painting back, but the owner will not agree. The lawyer also falls in love with this beautiful woman named Irene. He risks his career for her only to have her mysteriously disappear—along with the painting.

We meet the lawyer decades later, when he visits an art gallery in New South Wales. Stunned to see the portrait once again, he realizes that if the painting is here, then Irene must be too. He hires an investigator to locate her.

Living almost off the grid in an island off the New South Wales coast, Irene is a very ill woman. She purposely lured the men in her life back to her by having the painting exhibited in a public gallery. Why after all these years did she feel a need to reconnect with these three men?

The story is told in three parts.

The painting ‘Ema’ by Gerhard Richter partly inspired this novel.

“The value of life remains a mystery to me. How can one define the value of something lost, if the person who has lost it doesn’t miss it?”

“The big early defeats change the course of our lives. The small ones don’t change us, but they stay with us and torment us, little thorns in our side.”

Several years ago, I read this author’s renowned novel “The Reader” and enjoyed it very much. It was on the strength of that reading experience that I chose to read this one.

This was a peculiar reading experience. The novel was beautifully written, but I failed to see its purpose. It seemed not be really telling a story, but rather the story served as a vehicle to impart some philosophical reflections on life, aging, routine, possession and regret.  Just as Irene seems to ‘use’ the men in her life to her own purposes, so too does the author seem to use his story for reasons other that what is readily discernible on the surface.

The narrator was not a likeable person. He was very narcissistic and had seemed emotionally stunted in some way. In fact all of the characters seemed extremely self-absorbed and opportunistic. Part three of the book saw the narrator having an epiphany of sorts. He comes to know himself more, and realize his own regrets. His ‘what might have been‘ had he not lived his life in such a timid fashion.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. Yes, if you want to experience some of Schlink’s exemplary prose; No if you’re looking for a captivating story.

This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Pantheon (Penguin Publishing Group) via Edelweiss.

Published: March 14, 2017  Publisher: Pantheon

ISBN: 9781101870716 –  ASIN:  B01HA4PAEO –  240 pages

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany is 1944. A professor of law at Humboldt University, Berlin and Cardozo Law School, New York, he is the author of the major international bestselling novel and movie The Reader, short story collection Flights of Love and several prize-winning crime novels. He lives in Berlin and New York.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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15 Responses to “The Woman On The Stairs” by Bernhard Schlink – Book Review

  1. it’s not an easy task you undertake and you seem to be doing it with consistency and commitment. special thanks coming your way to let you know that you’re doing a great service to the tireless authors, writers, readers and the entire fraternity. stick with it. blessings. will be following your posts and hope you follow mine and share a thought sometime.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for an honest review. Sounds interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Carla says:

    I also enjoyed The Reader, but the blurb about this one did not appeal to me. Wonderful review Lynne, very honest and insightful. I am glad I gave this one a pass.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pink Roses says:

    Thank you for the post, Fictionophile. I’ll give this one a miss. I read The Reader years ago; I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “The novel was beautifully written, but I failed to see its purpose. It seemed not be really telling a story, but rather the story served as a vehicle to impart some philosophical reflections on life, aging, routine, possession and regret. Just as Irene seems to ‘use’ the men in her life to her own purposes, so too does the author seem to use his story for reasons other that what is readily discernible on the surface.” VERY well said.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. WendyW says:

    When I read the blurb and saw that the lawyer got involved with the “toxic trio” I was put off, as we all know toxic people, and I’m not sure I would want to read about them. And it seems like your review backs this up. I don’t mind side characters who are toxic or narcissistic, but I don’t think I’d like to read an entire book about someone like this, no matter how well written. Thanks for this review.


  7. James McEwan says:

    I really enjoyed “The Reader” , so I might look this one up. the story line sound familiar!


    • I wonder what you’ll think of it James? Perhaps a male perspective will make it more enjoyable. Thanks 😊


      • James McEwan says:

        Hi Lynne, I read the book back in the early 2000s. I gave my English copy away to a girlfriend from Latvia, she enjoyed the story.
        I recall feeling a sense of shame and guilt about the situations the characters become involved in. A boy and an older woman whose emotions for each other to me seemed odd and detached, yet still endearing. Hanna Schimtz was proud, defiant and herself a victim of the time. Uneducated and drawn into her role as a guard at a women’s concentration camp by the system. I experienced her sad loneliness and her attraction to the young man as he read for her. Later her stubbornness was her downfall or perhaps acceptance by taking the blame for the other guards crimes.
        there was also a sense of betrayal as the young man later could have intervened in her trial, but was compelled not to since he would be seen as defending the past of the Nazi Regime.
        I would have to read it again to provide more information on how I felt.
        I considered It as a an unlikely love story, a hopeless relationship separated by time and space. I believed how the book showed that persecution in Germany continued long after WW2 to make amends for the horrific behaviours of the past. This time it was the ordinary citizen who had no choice but be swept up the propaganda that was being blamed for their behaviour.
        I really need to read this again.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi. Have you read any of Stewart O’Nan’s books? Yesterday I started his novel Last Night At The Lobster.

    Liked by 1 person

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