Bernhard Schlink is best known for his internationally successful novel The Reader (1997), and he returns to the themes of passion and loss in The Woman on the Stairs, about a German lawyer who stumbles onto a nude painting of a woman for whom he once risked his career and who then mysteriously disappeared from his life.
When the nameless protagonist is in Sydney working on a case, he comes across a familiar painting in a local museum. Decades earlier, as a young lawyer in Frankfurt, he became entangled in an affair involving an artist, a woman named Irene and her art collector husband, who commissioned the aforementioned painting of the unfaithful Irene. Hired to mediate a series of conflicts involving damage and restoration of the canvas, the lawyer fell in love with Irene, who in turn convinced him to help her steal the painting, promising she would run away with him if they were successful. The day he helped her was the last day he saw her.
The lawyer is able to locate Irene with the help of a local detective. Living in a remote area outside of Sydney, Irene is now leading a quiet life, assisting her elderly neighbors and growing her own food. It also becomes apparent that she is quite ill. Irene’s life of passion forces the lawyer to come to terms with his own losses and to understand that many of his choices were merely reactions to the coldness that he experienced as a child.
Schlink, a professor of law in both Germany and the United States, writes with lawyerly precision, and his protagonist’s midlife search for meaning is thought-provoking and surprisingly tender, though some of the characters never fully come to life. The Woman on the Stairs will appeal to readers as an exploration of the moral ambiguities of blame and guilt and the ethical issues of ownership.