The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In this powerful novel, Schlink examines the price of personal freedom and obsession through the lives of his flawed characters: Peter, the artist obsessed with his muse and control of his artwork; Karl, the business tycoon married to Peter's muse and just as obsessed with her as he is with his own prowess; and Irene, the trophy to Karl and muse to Peter.
Irene is the captivating goddess and subject of Peter's painting. Her presence and the artwork itself loom large in the characters' individual and shared fates. She is the woman on the stairs who struggles against a patriarchal society, ultimately paying a considerable price for her nonconformity.
The story unfolds through both the present time and reflections of the past, as facilitated by an unnamed narrator, an attorney who has been drawn into the triangular relationship between the main characters and plays the role of pawn to advance their wishes and desires. Readers learn how each character connects to the other, exploring the outcomes of their jealousies and rivalries as they are reunited one last time in their senior years to contemplate both the past, the future, and the meaning of life.
The story raises questions about morals and values; selfishness, status quo, and the common good; the consequences of choices; life's purpose; the roles individuals play in the lives of others; and the elusive nature of love and happiness. Schlink, who previously wrote The Reader, is a thought-provoking author and masterful story teller who suggests that ultimate freedom is attained by coming to terms with and releasing the past.