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 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
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.