The Reader begins in pre-WW2 Germany when a fifteen year old boy, Michael Berg, has an affair with a thirty-six year old woman, Hanna Schmitz. From the start, it’s hard to like Hanna. She unapologetically enters into a sexual relationship with an adolescent young enough to be her son. She gives him her physical self while holding back her emotional self. She confuses the boy, manipulates him, and ultimately leaves him.
When we see her later in the book, she is on trial for war crimes as a conentration camp guard. Again, she appears unapologetic–matter-of-fact. She is honest, but gives nothing away. She has flashes of remorse and clarity, but continually retreats behind the veil she has created for herself.
The boy, meanwhile, is an open book. The novel is told from his point of view in the first person and is heavy on internal monologue. Michael is sympatheic, likable, endearing, and transparent. He has a satisfying character arc that resolves itself, as much as it can, by the end of the book.
The Reader is a quick read, and author Bernhard Schlink is a gifted writer. I was unsatisfied, however, when I finished the book because we never got the whole story on Hanna. I find it hard to digest that a thirty-six year old woman would enter into a sexual relationship with a fifteen year old boy under the circumstances–or lack of circumstances–described in the book. Michael falls ill outside of her apartment one day, she helps him and cleans him up, he goes back to thank her, they begin a sexual relationship. It felt like a young boy’s fantasy played out in a novel without real plausability. If she had shown more vulnerability or we knew more about Hanna’s past I could buy it, but as it stands it’s a bit far fetched. We do see Hanna’s vulnerability and great shame emerge through the trial, but it still did not satisfy my need for more backstory on her. Perhaps the author intended to keep Hanna a mystery, but it was frustrating.
Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s original, well-written, and thought-provoking. I look forward to seeing the movie.