One man steers an erratic course between two women in this wan account of a quasi-obsession, the latest from the Swiss Stamm (On a Day Like This, 2008, etc.).
In the framing device, Alex, a married German architect, is telling Antje, an expatriate German artist, about the Other Woman. His story begins in 1989. He’s an architecture student in Munich. In a beer garden, a friend sets him up with a young woman who’s been eyeing him. This is Ivona, from Poland, a clerk in a Catholic bookstore. She’s plain, passive, inarticulate, quite without charm, “a natural-born victim,” yet Alex, perversely, finds himself drawn to her. He spends the night with her. They don’t have sex, yet Ivona says she loves him; her unwavering devotion is her only appeal. The second time he comes close to raping her. Then she fades into the background as Alex travels to Marseilles with Sonia, another architecture student. She is everything that Ivona is not. They make love. After some twists and turns, Alex and Sonia get married; she accepts his assurance that he’s broken up with Ivona. They start their own firm; business is booming, but they can’t make a baby. Alex starts seeing Ivona again. She becomes pregnant. Alex suggests to Sonia that they raise the child together. Implausibly, she agrees. What might have been a moment of high drama passes for nothing as the narrative voice drones on. And the cold question recurs: Why should we care about these people? OK, perhaps Sonia a little. This smart, beautiful, warm-hearted woman is trapped in the wrong marriage and the wrong novel. But the almost mute Ivona is an unformed lump of clay, and Alex is a self-pitying creep who proves, in due course, a neglectful parent to little Sophie. By the end, nothing has really changed.
A monster with a full-bore obsession might have been fun to read about, but that’s not what’s on offer in this damp squib.