A first collection of seven patiently detailed, emotionally complex tales from the German author of the surprise critical success (an Oprah selection) The Reader (1997).
As did that quietly engrossing debut novel, Schlink’s stories excavate the sources of his characters’ singularity and uncertainty in their past histories, and also thrust forward to display the lasting consequences of the choices they’ve made. For example, a young West German’s complicated friendship with an East German couple (in “A Little Fling”) tests his tendency toward withdrawal and plunges him into an irreconcilable tangle of political and marital conflicts and betrayals. In the compelling title story, an introverted young man’s fixation on an eye-catching painting unsettles both his family’s harmony and his own ability to sustain relationships; and in “The Other Man” a widower’s slowly developing revenge against his late wife’s secret lover reveals to him his own compromises and failings. Schlink’s bleak realism sometimes misfires, producing slices of life (“The Son,” “The Circumcision”) that remain shapeless and inconclusive. But at his best—as in the mordant “Sugar Peas,” about a married architect’s inability to “juggle’ relationships with the several women who make him happy and fulfilled—he’s a sober, meticulous craftsman whose plainspoken analyses of the often extraordinary inner dimensions of outwardly ordinary lives recalls the generally underestimated fiction of his countrymen Heinrich Böll and Martin Walser. And, at times, he works with a concision and suggestiveness that vibrate with thematic possibility: notably in “The Woman at the Gas Station,” whose middle-aged protagonist discovers, during a hopeful “second honeymoon” trip with the wife from whom he has grown estranged, that a recurring romantic dream may have taken possession of him in a way his “reality” no longer can.
Touching, involving short fiction from a writer who eschews bold imagery and stylistic fireworks—and slowly, doggedly gets into your head and under your skin.