The Stronger Sex is narrated by the young Dr. Alex Zabel, a lawyer saddled by his boss with the difficult task of defending an incorrigible elderly womanizer. He is immediately in over his head. The legal situation is thorny enough: Herr Klofft has fired his former mistress, an accomplished engineer, for taking sick time, and she has protested before the employment tribunal. Zabel’s real challenge, however, is in human relations: he has to deal with his client, Herr Klofft, with his ornery moods, ever-looming mortality and off-color humor; the surprisingly sexy and seductive Frau Klofft; and Zabel’s own prickly girlfriend. The plot is quiet and unhurried, proceeding sedately toward a resolution that is less important than the journey Kettenbach takes us on to get there. Anthea Bell translates from the German with great skill, with fewer awkward moments than many native-English writers.
This novel contemplates old age, sensuality and the relationship between the two. The advances (and retreats) between Zabel and Frau Klofft feel deathly serious in their implications. The young attorney is deeply embarrassed by Herr Klofft’s vulgarity as well as by his own attraction to the elderly Frau. He reacts almost as an adolescent to her worldly charms, struggling to fit the Kloffts’ eccentricities into his conservative world.
While the events that move the action in this book are muted, the layered, potentially uncomfortable questions resonate in the back of the reader’s head. Kettenbach has succeeded in writing a novel that demands reflection. It’s not a psychological thriller, but a psychological study with a legal background, filled with black humor to accompany Zabel’s slightly bizarre relationships. This meditative novel is mildly disturbing but massively thought-provoking.
This review originally ran in the May 19 issue of Shelf Awareness. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!