The Reader is the story of fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a forty-year-old woman. One day, Michael is taken ill outside Hannaís apartment and she takes him in, cares for him, then sends him on his way. When he returns to her apartment to express his gratitude, he is mesmerized by how beautiful she is, in her own way. Eventually, Hanna takes Michael as a lover. The more he sees her, the more Michael realizes he knows nothing about Hanna. And there is a reason for that Ė Hanna is a woman with a secret, a secret that does not become clear until many years later.
More than anything else, The Reader is a Holocaust novel. Unlike traditional novels on the theme, however, it doesnít actually take place during the time period of the Holocaust. Instead, the book is set in Germany, as the generation after the atrocious acts and horrors of the Holocaust is coming of age. In large part, the novel is about guilt. As these young men and women look at their parents, they see people who, while not complicit in the murdering of millions of innocent Jews, tolerated mass killings. Their parents lived side-by-side with murderers. How can you reconcile that? Are they to blame? Is everyone to blame?
The relationship between Hanna and Michael is difficult to swallow. Simply from their age difference, it is clear that Hanna is taking advantage of Michael, seeking some sort of comfort; she is trying to hide from her past and looking for companionship in a world where she is alone. In the book, Michael actually benefits from his relationship with Hanna as well. Being with the older woman gives him confidence, and he becomes more and more popular at school. As Hanna becomes frantic and emotional and Michael tries to calm her, it is sometimes easy to forget that he is the teenager. However, it does seem that Hanna manipulates Michael to keep him under her power. Because she doesnít talk about her past, it is easy to assume her motives. The question is, once Hannaís secrets are revealed, is it actually more complicated than that, or was she just a selfish, insecure woman?
The Reader is an extremely stark novel. While you would think the book would be emotional because of the affair and the subject matter of the Holocaust, itís actually very level. The entire book seems almost numb, completely detached from reality. The stark quality of the prose actually helps get the message of the novel across because it isnít hindered by emotion.
The Reader is a provocative novel that people will talk about for years to come. The questions of moral responsibility and guilt are eternal ones that humanity will always have to struggle with. It seems like a weighty read, but it isnít. Great for book clubs because of the potential for discussion on each of the topics presented, this is a book you canít help but feel strongly about, one way or another.