Cover image for A stairway to paradise : a novel
A stairway to paradise : a novel
St. John, Madeleine.
Personal Author:
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf, 1999.
Physical Description:
185 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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Madeleine St John's poignant characteristically witty new and novel tells the story of three people locked in an unhappy tangle of emotions and desires, none able to articulate the precise quality of their longing and dissatisfaction. There's Alex, miserable in his cold and calmly professional marriage, unable to leave because of his two children. Next comes Andrew, recently home from ten years in America, leaving an ex-wife and a beloved daughter on the other side of the world. And finally there's Barbara, the enchanting and lustrous object of their affections, formally self-possessed but strangely aimless and unfulfilled.

With elegance and acuity, Madeleine St John chronicles their progress through numerous false starts, reversals, and misapprehensions. The result is a deeper understanding of longing and its significant companion -- loss.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A Barbara Pym for the `90s, or perhaps a younger, more ironic Penelope Fitzgerald, St. John is a lustrous storyteller whose work has a poetic rhythm like video drama: very short chapters with knife-blade conversations that fade out after each verse. Alex and Claire can barely stand to breathe the same air, but when he falls very hard for Barbara, the thought of his children stymies him--he cannot think of leaving. Andrew, who is back in England after his American wife throws him out but keeps his young daughter, also yearns toward Barbara. She herself is a dreamy, voluptuous woman whom we catch more glimpses of than either of the men, but the trio's pain is real enough. "Truth told slant" and one of those rock-hard endings whip this tale into a force that feels like walking into a door you forgot was closed. Fine work, well crafted. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

Booker Prize-nominee (The Essence of the Thing) St. John casts a droll eye over sentimental entanglements in this sophisticated novel, which features three hapless, intertwined lovers. "After all, it's not our fault," acknowledges Andrew Flynn, one of two middle-aged, lovelorn men who lust after the elusive Barbara, "that we're ignorant and ineptÄit's the way we're designed, basically.... as a species, we're still in the experimental stage." Flynn has just returned to London after a 10-year teaching stint in the U.S., leaving a broken marriage and young daughter behind. His friend Alex, a successful journalist, is stuck in a loveless marriage to Claire. Both men fall in love with Barbara, an elusive, charming young woman who can't decide where to plant her feet. Andrew thinks of Barbara as he sits in his "brand-new, rather empty sitting-room," and Alex obsesses over her while Claire is away at the Scunthorpe Literary Festival. Confronted by the reciprocation of Barbara's feelings, Alex is "too amazed by it to be able to think," much less do anything. He explains that he and his wife have a "modus operandi," and plan to stay together until their youngest child, age eight, is old enough to attend boarding school. (The two children, meanwhile, secretly count the days until their parents divorce.) Barbara refuses to have an affair with a married man. No one feels sorry for himself or herself: they simply drift along, hoping for the best, expecting little. This refreshing and witty if sometimes dauntingly British novel demonstrates that people give themselves all sorts of reasons to avoid "paradise." (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Booker Prize nominee St. John (The Essence of the Thing) writes quiet British novels that explore emotional relationships from the inside. In her latest, two men vie for the love of the same woman, the beautiful but bland Barbara. Barbara is staying at her friend Claire's house, looking after the children while Claire is away. At first Barbara is repulsed by Alex, her friend's husband, calling him "nasty Mr. Rochester." But as in Jane Eyre, Barbara falls in love with her Mr. Rochester, and when Alex refuses to leave Claire, Barbara despondently ends the affair. Alex then introduces her to his friend Andrew, and Andrew falls in love with Barbara as well. He is recently back in Britain after a failed marriage to an American woman and looks forward to returning to his roots: "English life: sweet, sweet rice pudding, lumpy and sweet and deceptively bland." St. John, who has been compared to Iris Murdoch and Mary Wesley, captures the mixture of emotions that result from lust, longing, and deceit. Recommended for public libraries.ÄBeth Gibbs, P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.