The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: A Book Review

I took the girls to the library last week, and I saw an Oprah’s Book Club choice in the recently returned stack, so I decided to check it out.

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Just a few pages into The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, I remembered that I had read this quite a few years ago, but I couldn’t remember what happened.  I’ll be honest, the first couple chapters are very risque, and I almost quit reading.  Luckily, I pushed through that part and enjoyed the rest of the book.  (I think last time I picked this up I stopped in the middle of the risque parts and never finished because I never did remember the rest of the story, even after I had finished it.)

The story follows Michael Berg, a 15 year old boy living in Germany who has a chance encounter with Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old neighbor.  He sees her once again, and she seductively changes her clothes while he’s in the apartment and her bedroom door is ajar.  This is the beginning of a passionate, desperate affair that goes on for quite some time and affects Michael for the rest of his life.

Each of their visits together follows a similar pattern–Michael would read to her, then they would bathe together and then have sex.  At first, Michael is passionate about their rendezvous, but gradually, he fills his days with spending time with his classmates.

One day, Hanna suddenly moves, and Michael, who was already starting to grow tired of the affair but was still obsessed with it, is baffled.  Why did she leave?  Was it something he had done?

He does not see Hanna until eight years later, when she is on trial and he is a law student observing the trial.  Hanna had been a guard for the SS, and she, along with four other female guards, are on trial for a heinous crime.  There’s some dispute who wrote the report about the night in question.  All four of the other guards try to pin the blame on Hanna, but she does not agree.  Then, the court decides to bring in a handwriting expert, and suddenly, Hanna says, yes, she’s guilty.  She wrote the report.

It is then that Michael realizes that Hanna has an even bigger secret, one that she’s willing to protect by sacrificing herself in this trial.

This is an excellent but emotionally churning book.  I felt sorry for Michael throughout because though he believed the relationship he had with Hanna was consensual, Hanna should have realized, at 36 years old, that her behavior was seriously inappropriate.  Indeed, his early relationship with Hanna taints (and ruins, to a degree) the rest of his life.

As a character, Hanna is not particularly likable, especially in light of her war crimes, but the author does an excellent job making the reader sympathize with her.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.

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