I am slowly working my way through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and this one is on the list. I thankfully have not seen the movie version yet, but now am dying to.
The Reader takes place in postwar Germany and follows young Michael Berg as he gets sick on the street and is rescued by an older woman. After recovering from his illness, Michael brings her flowers to thank her, and they develop a relationship. He reads to her, they take baths and make love all in Hanna's apartment. She is more than twice his age and Michael struggles to keep her separate from his school-life, even as he knows he is doing Hanna wrong by doing so.
I love the way their first days are described, how ardently Michael adores Hanna. He loves that she is not trying to seduce him really, it is more that she isn't trying to impress him, she just is impressive to him.
"It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world."
Hanna disappears and Michael later sees her on trail for crimes committed as a guard of a group of Jewish women at one of the concentration camps. However, Michael realizes that Hanna is taking the blame because she is ashamed of a secret she has kept from everyone, even him. Michael is so conflicted because he (and his generation) is trying to deal with how to view their parents and elders who were either complicit in the Holocaust or stood by and let it happen. Just as we Americans had our "Great Generation", for Michael it seems that they had a Failed Generation. And yet he cannot completely condemn Hanna because he loved her.
"And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal"
What struck me most about Hanna's situation was that during her trial when she was accused of her actions and inaction she turned to the judge and asked him what he would have done. And there can be no answer. While she serves her sentence in prison, Michael begins to send her tapes of himself reading to her, and yet cannot bring himself to visit or write her a letter.
"The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as a matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive."
There is a soft spot in my heart for tragic love stories, and this one is very bittersweet. It is difficult to remember that people who have done horrible, horrible things are often times just people who at their core are not bad or evil. Hanna did at least take part in a horrific act, and yet I cannot view her as a bad character.
I am very excited to see the film version and see how they handle all of this. But I would highly suggest this book to anyone.