The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
It is a common enough image in painting: a nude woman descending stairs. In his new novel The Woman on the Stairs, Bernhard Schlink turns this single motif into a complete world with an imagined backstory to lure the reader into its narrative. Sadly, this initial promise does not deliver: the plot becomes too hackneyed, the characters unfulfilled, and the writing too predictable.
While in a museum in Sydney, Australia, the narrator, a German attorney, sees a painting he first saw nearly 40 years ago when it was part of a contentious dispute between the artist Schwind, the owner Gundlack, and the model Irene. The painting ensnares the narrator as it had so many years ago. It had once been the center to a web of affairs: the model and the owner were married, but the painter stole the model away. The model enlisted the help of the narrator, who at the time was young and inexperienced in life and law, and together they conspired to steal the painting and get it to the right place. But, where is the right place and who is the rightful owner? Who will betray whom?
As in his magnificent novel The Reader (1997), the woman disappears and is only discovered years later. The model’s maiden name is Adler, perhaps in a nod to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’s Irene Adler appeared only once in the canon, but appears numerous times in various reincarnations of the stories by contemporary writers, and is usually rendered as the only woman Holmes may have loved. Schlink’s Irene Adler also seems to be a bit shady. Having seen the painting, the narrator is compelled to find out who loaned it to the museum, and discovers that it was Irene who had stolen it years ago. His inquiries lead him to directly to Irene, who lives illegally on an isolated Australian island.
In its best passages, the attorney tells Irene an imaginary story of how their life together could have been. They “travel” from New York City across the United States as the narrator conjures up vivid descriptions of the changes one might encounter while driving across the country. These descriptions also highlight the skills of translators Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt, who capture all the right words.
Regrettably, The painter and the owner are flat characters and minor foils to balance the stories of Irene and the attorney. While the latter are better developed, they do not exist in a story that approaches the drama and life of The Reader. Schlink has written a formulaic novel and the effort shows. Readers might paraphrase a comment by the narrator that every novel has a silver lining, but every novel is also just a novel, and this novel has less silver than one would have expected. We will not see this novel turned into a movie.