At two points in time, three men find themselves involved with the same woman in this latest by the bestselling author of The Reader (1997).
While in Sydney for work, a lawyer, who narrates the story, sees a painting in a gallery that stirs up 40-year-old memories of one of his first cases back in Frankfurt. It involved a tug of war between an industrialist who commissioned a life-size nude of his wife and the artist who did the work and then ran off with the model. A conflict involving damage to and restoration of the canvas escalates to where the lawyer is asked to draw up a contract under which the artist regains ownership of the painting but returns the wife. Meanwhile, the lawyer, whose ethics prove increasingly elastic, has fallen in love with the woman and agrees to help her steal the painting and flee from both her beaux. He also assumes he will become her new paramour. Foolish man. She absconds altogether with her nude canvas self. Back in present-day Sydney, the lawyer surmises the woman is living nearby and hires a detective to find her, hoping to satisfy a surge of nostalgia and answer some old questions. In no time at all, Schlink (Summer Lies, 2012, etc.) has lawyer, industrialist, and artist all gathered in a remote area of Australia, where the woman has been living a kind of hippie life for many years. The painter and tycoon remain acquisitive and two-dimensional, while the woman’s post-flight life is dabbed with suggestions of color. The lawyer is revealed as a lifelong cold fish warming up to his one old flame. But who wins the hand of a once-fair maiden known for her fine birthday suit? Alas, that would be revealing one of the book’s few surprises.
Despite some touching scenes near the end, Schlink doesn’t seem to have the creative wherewithal to bring his characters and themes fully to life.