Recap: It’s a daring, forbidden relationship, but how is 15-year-old Michael supposed to resist the beautiful, curvacious woman more than 20 years his senior? The Reader tells the story of Michael and Hanna’s 30+ year relationship in post-WWII Germany.
The story begins when Hanna rescues Michael after he falls ill on his walk home from school. He is very sick for a few months, and afterwards, he finally seeks out Hannah to thank her for her heroic actions. But their friendship quickly and ferociously turns sexual, and suddenly Hanna, a 36-year-old train conductor, is sleeping with a high school student. After some time, the sex turns into love, and all the while, Michael reads to Hanna. When they’re not making love, he’s reading stories, teaching her about the world outside their lovesick bubble.
Suddenly, Hanna leaves town. But it’s not the last Michael sees of his first and only true love. They do meet again — but this time it’s in court, and it’s not sexual at all. Hanna is on trial for a Nazi war crime — one that only Michael, who spent all those months reading to Hanna, knows she did not commit. But off she goes to jail, and Michael makes it a point to continue their relationship.
Analysis: The beauty of The Reader is that the novel is written so eloquently, yet like a diary. With Michael narrating, he doesn’t go into details. He speaks bluntly and openly to the readers, nonchalantly mentioning the night he fell in love with Hanna and their sexual escapades. His matter-of-fact narration sets the tone for the novel itself; the story moves quickly without much description. Author Bernhard Schlink writes The Reader so one storyline flows immediately into and causes the next. I like a book that moves quickly and wastes no time.
But I also like book with intertwining stories and surprises, which is what Schlink offers here. I knew that Michael and Hanna would meet again, but I didn’t think it would be during a war crimes trial. While Michael and Hanna are involved, there’s so little we know about Hanna. So initially, her involvement in Auschwitz is shocking.
The trial shines light on how Germany struggled to deal with the war even years after it ended. It also speaks to the issue of illiteracy, which — we can infer and later learn for a fact — is why Michael reads to Hanna. Big social issues, historical fiction, and romance play dynamic roles in The Reader, which left me fascinated and wanting to learn more.
MVP: Hanna. She had her issues — illiteracy, a murder conviction, sexual relations with an underage boy, and obvious insecurity. But she’s bold. She commands power, albeit unknowingly, over others in a way that’s both infuriating and captivating. She’s as complex as complex characters get, and I just wanted to know more about her.
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