The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is a national bestseller, an Oparah’s book club pick, and has hit the NY Times bestseller paperback fiction list. It is also the basis for an Oscar award-winning movie. I picked up the novel because I saw the film and thought there was some element missing from the film. I hope to find this missing piece or element in the book and I did. I feel more satisfied about the movie now and I had the pleasure spending an evening reading an uncommonly good and conflicted book. The book brings to the table all the internal conflict and moral conflict that I had hoped to find in the movie but didn’t. This book is one of growing up, dealing with change, and dealing with a national identity the likes of we can only imagine.
Michael Berg is a young man of fifteen when gets sick on his way home from school one day. A woman, Hannah, helps him get to his home. When he is well, he brings her flowers to thank her for helping him. After spying on her while she gets dressed, he finds himself enamored with her and they have an affair. At the time she is thirty-five. It’s a very passionate affair punctuated by him reading to her. During the summer, they even go on a bike trip together. Then abruptly as the affair started, it ends. Hannah just leaves one day and Michael doesn’t see her again until he is in college. He is in law school and his class goes to the trial of some women who were guards at a Nazi women’s camp. There are six or so of them on trial and one of them is Hannah. Michael begins to struggle with the image of the woman he knew that summer and the image of the woman who could have caused the deaths of all those people. They just can’t be the same people to him. He also struggles with himself. How could he have loved a person like that? During the trial, he discovers a secret that Hannah has kept all these years. This secret could prove her innocence in a very grave crime. Will he tell and save her life? Or will he let her suffer her fate? You will have to read the book to find out.
Beyond the plot, this book deals with the internal conflicts of Michael. He is a philosopher’s son and approaches his life and the guilt and sorrow it has leveled on him with a historian’s/philosopher’s air. He is introspective about how Hannah affected him and how the sins of the people alive during the Nazi regime affect their children. There are several complex issues about identity, morality, and love brought to bear in this novel and its left up to you to sort the sordid story out.
The characters in this novel make it. You feel the pain, confusion and guilt of Michael. He becomes real through the course of the telling of the novel (in a way that doesn’t translate to the movie). Schlink writes well and gives Michael a unique voice, which tells the story through his eyes and tells us what he has learned.
The Reader is a thoughtful book. You wouldn’t want to use it for light reading on the beach, but if you are looking for a book to make you think and to sink your literary teeth into then this is the book for you. The book is much better than the movie.