Ten years ago, The Readerby Bernhard Schlink was featured in Oprah’s book club. This was the first of her selections that I was unable to finish. Although I knew that I found it distasteful, I couldn’t remember why. With the current popularity of the movie adaption and the rave reviews the book has gotten from many different sources – Oprah, 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, and from readers of this blog – I decided to give it another try.
This autobiographical novel is a quick read; I was able to finish it in a few hours. The two main characters, Michael and Hanna, embark upon a sexual relationship when he is fifteen and she is thirty-six. The relationship becomes formulaic. First they bathe together, then he reads aloud to her, then they have sex. She reveals nothing to him of her past. After a few months she quits her job and disappears. The relationship haunts him for the rest of his life.
Two of my best friends have fifteen year old sons. If I found out either of these boys were involved in a sexual relationship with a thirty-six year old woman, I would be appalled and hope that the woman would be arrested. Because of my disgust at this relationship, I was never able to sympathize with Hanna’s plight.
Michael later encounters Hanna during his legal studies. During one of his classes, he observes a war crimes trial. He is surprised to find Hanna as one of the defendants. She had served as a guard at a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
It is revealed that Hanna had favorites in the camp who read to her. She is accused by her fellow defendants of having written reports that covered up the heinous crimes that occurred at the camp. Instead of having a handwriting analysis done that would prove her innocence, she falsely admits to having written the reports. As the trial progresses, Michael realizes that she is illiterate.
After Hanna goes to prison, Michael reads books aloud and sends her the tapes in the mail. She learns to read by following along in the books. She then teaches herself to write.
Perhaps the reason so many others laud this book is that they feel Hanna is a victim of her illiteracy. She becomes a Nazi guard because in order to do the alternative job she has been offered at Siemens she would need to read and write. Later she ends up with a life sentence because she is to ashamed to admit she is illiterate. If this were the only storyline in the novel, I probably would have felt sorry for Hanna as well. But I just couldn’t get over the fact that she knowingly had an intimate relationship with a fifteen year old boy.
Despite Kate Winslet’s Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actress, I will not be seeing the film adaptation of The Reader.