Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This is going to be one of the most difficult reviews I've had to write in quite a while. I had a lot of mixed feelings about The Reader. A summary, as spoiler-free as possible:

In postwar Germany, a sick teenage boy is rescued by an older stranger named Hanna. As he gets to know Hanna better, Michael becomes Hanna's lover. After some time, Hanna disappears without a trace...until Michael sees her again, several years later, in a courtroom being accused of committing horrifying crimes as a Nazi guard. 

The first half of the book, about Michael and Hanna's love affair, was not my cup of tea. Frankly, I don't really find it interesting to read about a messed-up thirty-something woman indulging a horny fifteen-year-old boy's sexual impulses. I think part of the purpose of this part of the book was to make me care about the characters, particularly Hanna--or, at the very least, to be curious about them--but it only repulsed me. I didn't want to learn more about the characters. The only reason I pushed on was that my mom gave me this book, so I knew there had to be more to it than first met the eye.

There was, of course, as is obvious from the summary alone. The second half of the book brings up some really interesting moral issues, things we don't always think about when it comes to World War II. Is it our duty to defend someone who refuses to defend herself? Does that person deserve to be defended, when she really did commit horrible atrocities? Does it make me a bad person to love someone who did unspeakable evil, even if I didn't know? The book forces us to ask these questions and others. The ability of the book to convey such depth so succinctly (just a little over 200 pages) was impressive.

One complaint I had--which could be minor or major, depending on your point of view--was that I thought Hanna's "secret" was very obvious from early on. (The blurb on the back of the book said that there was a secret, so I don't think that's really a spoiler.) In fact, it was so obvious to me that I was sure it couldn't possibly be the deep, dark secret that I was promised. (And I'm not the type to try to guess the way books end.) So that made the book kind of a let-down for me because I kept waiting for this secret to be revealed, only to discover that it was something I'd always been aware of. It didn't make the book any less compelling, but it did serve to make the book less exciting.

Ultimately, I'm glad I finished the book, but I wouldn't particularly recommend it to anyone. I thought the first half was too long and too indulgent, frequently making me want to put the book down. The second half was very compelling, but I just don't know if it was worth it. I'm not sure I ever completely cared to learn the fate of the characters. If anything, I was merely curious, not actually invested. The Reader has some merit, but it wasn't for me.


  1. thanks, one I can take off from my TBR then and add to my giveaway books pile!

  2. This one is on my CC list AND right on my library shelf right now. Sigh. I guess I'd better get to it and then I won't have to think about it any more. Or maybe I'll just change it out of my list--that's statutory rape and I don't care, it's damaging. People are always all nod wink about it if it's a boy, and that's an awful attitude. Like just the other day, that teacher who slept with a *9th-grader* got all of 60 days in jail, probably because it was a boy and half the population thinks he got lucky instead of molested. Barf. :P

    1. Man, that's awful! I agree with you 100%. To be fair to the book, I don't know that it was exactly trying to justify either of their actions. I'm not really sure; I never figured that out. It showed how the affair messed up the boy's ability to have healthy relationships later in his life, but it also seemed sort of like a nostalgic "you never forget your first" kind of thing. Anyway...certainly both characters were messed up. But it's still not something I like reading about.

  3. My husband and I always think about renting this (movie) b/c it looks interesting, but we hesitate every time. I agree that the relationship seems strange. So I have no idea if the movie is a better interpretation of the book.