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Review: “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

October 12, 2010

I’ll be spending this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ll be going in order from least favorite to most.

Before I started reading it, the only thing I knew about The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was that it was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet. I picked up a used copy in beautiful condition last year, and the novel’s short chapters and overall length prompted me to add it to my Readathon pile. I got through the first third during the Readathon.

By way of summary, here’s a bit from the back-of-the-book blurb:

When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover. She enthralls him with her passion, but puzzles him with her odd silences. Then she inexplicably disappears.

The next time Hanna and Michael meet is under very different circumstances. They tell you what those circumstances are on the back of the book, but I think it reveals too much.

The Reader Cover

Narrated by Michael, the novel is broken into three parts. Part 1 chronicles Michael’s teenage days, while parts 2 and 3 have as their backdrop the Holocaust and its aftermath. All told, the story spans several decades.

The Reader is of those haunting and bittersweet tales, with missed connections and wrong assumptions and lots of wanted-to-but-didn’t moments. As he relates their history, Michael struggles to come to terms with Hanna and their relationship. Michael and Hanna seem to move in opposite directions: where he matures from a teenager to a man as the book progresses, she is more like an onion whose layers are gradually peeled back to reveal her past. As he learns the pieces of Hanna’s past, Michael must continually readjust his conception of her.

The book also tackles moral issues, blurring the line between good and evil, forcing you to consider the exceptions and examine the middle ground. It does not hesitate to ask questions, many of which are tough or even impossible to answer definitively. There’s a lot of introspection and reflection woven in with the story as Michael grapples with everything from issues of morality to his and Hanna’s relationship.

Hanna and Michael come across as very real, flawed people. I didn’t love or hate either of them, but I felt for them. I had no answers to their questions, no solutions for the what-ifs, yet their story carried me along. The novel forces you to think alongside its characters, because it provides no answers either.

Overall, The Reader was not a book I adored. It is, however, a very real story, one that requires active participation. I would read it again just for the experience.


Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:

Still to come:

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (audiobook)
  • Something Missing by Matthew Dicks
  1. October 12, 2010 7:15 am

    I liked THE READER a lot but it’s a hard book to love- for me, it was a book I admired and one that I thought was very challenging from a literary and moral point of view. Definitely worth the read though! πŸ™‚

    • Erin permalink*
      October 12, 2010 10:39 am

      I agree! I think “admire” is a great adjective for how I felt about The Reader. Absolutely worth reading!

  2. October 12, 2010 10:40 am

    I think I’m more interested in the book than the movie. I guess I’ll have to read it first and see. Nice review!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 12, 2010 12:20 pm

      I’m usually more interested in the book! I think the same was true in this case. The only reason I knew Kate Winslet was in the movie is because of the movie cover editions of The Reader they released when the movie came out. I made sure to get a copy with the original cover!

      Definitely worth a read.

  3. October 12, 2010 1:24 pm

    The Reader is on my Fill In The Gaps. Your review made me want to read it sooner than later. Great review!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 12, 2010 7:58 pm

      I like the idea of a Fill in the Gaps list! As separate from a TBR list. I might have to adopt your terminology πŸ™‚

      As for The Reader, it doesn’t take long to get through, but it’s definitely worth the read. Enjoy!

  4. October 12, 2010 9:29 pm

    I was really moved by this book when I read it several years ago. It has stayed with me too. I did see the movie, which had gorgeous scenery. And while I liked the movie more or less, the focus was a bit different and I didn’t walk away from it with the same sense of admiration and wonder that I was left with after reading the book.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 13, 2010 8:50 pm

      It seems to me that the narration adds a lot to the book. I would think that would be difficult to translate into a movie.

  5. October 13, 2010 6:15 am

    I want to read this book but it sounds quite difficult so it’s been put behind others on my wish list. Having no answers sounds double-edged, an interesting idea but maybe frustrating.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 13, 2010 8:51 pm

      I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, particularly. I thought it was easy to read; it just gives you a lot to think about, if you’re willing to think about it πŸ™‚ Compared to some books, I thought the rewards for reading The Reader were much greater than the effort I had to put into reading it.

  6. October 13, 2010 7:27 pm

    I’ve been planning on reading this one for awhile but just haven’t picked it up yet. Great review!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 13, 2010 8:52 pm

      Thanks! I hope you enjoy it when its turn comes around!

  7. October 13, 2010 9:50 pm

    I see the movie all the time on the menu for what’s coming on and I had never really been moved to read the book or watch the movie. After reading your review, I think I will pick it up and see what all the fuss is about.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 13, 2010 10:43 pm

      I don’t think it’ll take you too long to get through. I wasn’t particularly moved either, more that I felt like I “should” read it. I’m glad I did, though!

  8. October 14, 2010 7:47 am

    I like your way of looking at this book. I have been hesitant to pick it up, but now I’d like to give it a try. If the experience alone makes it worth a reread then I guess I need to give this the time for a first read :). Ugh, that sentence probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 14, 2010 10:37 am

      It’s definitely a book where something other than the writing or the plot won me over. It’s like I can’t quite put my finger on what it was…so I’m calling it “the experience” πŸ™‚ I hope you enjoy your first read, if / when you get to it!

  9. October 15, 2010 11:09 am

    I read this book many years ago. I thought it was a really interesating character study but, although I felt for the characters I didn’t really connect with them. I thought some of the issues it raised were very thought-provoking and some have stuck with me. I’ve thought about read ing this book again and maybe I will!

    You review is great, Erin, I really like how you described the story.

    ~ Amy

    • Erin permalink*
      October 15, 2010 10:56 pm

      I agree, I didn’t connect much with the characters, at least on an emotional level. My mom was asking me whether I liked the book, which was a really hard question to answer! I did like it, but not in that enthusiastic, everyone-go-read-this! sort of way. More like, as you said, it provoked thought and definitely stuck with me. I settled with telling her it’s definitely worth a read!

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