by Jacqueline Luongo
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is a story translated from German of a boy named Michael Berg and his journey through love, confusion, and life after the woman he loved. Michael’s story begins as if he is recounting it when he is much older. He starts by telling us of when he was fifteen and had hepatitis. His ailment had lasted for many months and the one time he thought he had enough strength to go to school he had ended up vomiting on the sidewalk. This is when Michael’s truly begins because this is when Hanna a woman double his age finds him and helps him. When Michael started feeling better he thought it was only right to thank Hanna for her help. He learns her “real” name is Frau Schmitz and soon finds himself heading up to her apartment. As he departures she decides to walk with him after she changed her clothes. He had felt uncomfortable, he didn’t stare in a “creepy” way but in awe. He was mesmerized by her grace and her womanly demeanor. This comes up later in the book when he recounts images of Hanna that never left him even over the course of his life time.
When he decides to go back and apologize for his strange behavior she isn’t home. He waits for hours on her steps and she finally arrives. This day in the book begins their sexual relationship. Michael knows that his feelings are real and that he had fallen deeply in love with Frau Schmitz. They begin sleeping with each other regularly but their “relationship” remains a secret. Over time, we see Hanna become power crazy. Michael tries everything to not upset Hanna and when he does he caves in and gives up even when Hanna’s wrong. In the first instance of this, we see Hanna end up admitting she loves Michael that way he does her. Soon, their love isn’t enough and Hanna leaves without telling Michael. He looked for her everywhere and when he tried relationships with other people he just couldn’t. This being Michael’s beginning of after.
Michael goes through at least 6 years before he sees Hanna again but when he does we learn Hanna’s deepest secret. The time period this story takes place isn’t blatantly obvious but we can connect it to the infamous atrocities of Germany in the 40’s. After high school Michael went to Law school and on a class trip to a trial he sees Hanna again. Hanna is put on trial for taking part in the Holocaust. It may not make much sense now but we later learn why and how it connects to the title of the book. Michael becomes obsessed with the trial but is disappointed when she is sentenced to many years in jail. He has no choice but to move on but he still cannot let go of Hanna. He gets married and has a baby girl but even a family isn’t enough to let go of his grasp on his first love. He writes, and sends her tapes of him reading just like she had used to love when they were together. When it is decided she can be released Michael assumes responsibility, but an unsuspecting twist hits leaving us with no idea of how to feel.
After reading The Reader I knew I had found my new favorite book. It is so hard to pick out something from this book that I disliked because it was so beautifully written. If I had to choose anything about the book that I would change it’d probably be Michael’s closure of his and Hanna’s relationship. Even though he had written and recorded tapes for her the last time he had gotten to see her was when she was in jail. Throughout the story you’ll find yourself relentlessly rooting for Michael to be happy but we know that he may find happiness but he will never find someone to love like he did Hanna. I may be the “romantic” but after reading Michael’s dissonance throughout the entire story all you can feel is that Michael deserves in the least an explanation but I think that is what made this book what it is, sometimes certain questions just shouldn’t be answered.
What I loved about this book was how insightfully it was written especially having been translated from German. A lot of the time there are a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense when translated but this book was riveting and surprising. There are really no words to describe how stunned I was when I read things like “It is also not true, as outsiders might assume, that one can merely observe the richness of life in the past, where as one can participate in the present. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.” (Schlink, The Reader. Pg. 180) This story may be considered inappropriate for its sexual content between Michael who is still considered a boy with a woman much older than him and even though it is, after reading it and learning their stories it becomes clear as to how they began their relationship and the love they felt.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has had bad experiences with books; anyone that has lost faith in the power of a good writer with the ability to write a truly moving story. The storyline is a bit mature but I can almost guarantee you this book will change your life. It’s insight on the confusion of love and what is dubbed “right” gives an entirely new view to the assumptions we make about people we don’t know. The Reader was never dry and will leave you asking questions and begging for answers at the end of every page.