This novel, “The Reader,” by Bernhard Schlink, has an incredible premise. A young man, Michael, learns about love from an older woman, Hanna, in Germany, not long after WW II. The relationship lasts for perhaps a year, and one of the most interesting aspects in the relationship is how he reads to the woman. It becomes a constant part of their relationship and creates a unique bond. The woman eventually leaves town so the young man can be a young man, but they come in contact again in the most unexpected way. As a law student Michael sits in on a trial of war criminals, and there is Hanna, accused of a horrible crime as a Nazi guard.
I’ll avoid saying more in order to preserve the plot for readers, but clearly all the elements for a range of issues are in the author’s hand. How frustrating to see it fumbled in the creation of two characters who seem to lack depth. Hanna’s guarded appearance makes sense, since she has a past to hide and actions to live with. But Michael is a young student with a bright future, yet seems to float on the surface his entire life. His time in law school, his marriage, and his life after his divorce, are narrated by him as if he is an objective bystander. Nothing seems to touch him in life, except for a few paragraphs where he laments how his young daughter must feel after his divorce.
As the narrator, we have plenty of opportunity to get inside Michael’s head, but it is his heart we are missing. As a result, the book misses the mark when it could have been great. Seeing some of these same issues taken up by a different writer would be interesting, but the hope to be challenged in our thinking is not to be found in this novel. Note that many established critics like the book, and it was named in the list of books for the year by both the New York Times and the L.A. Times. It was also made into a feature film, which I have not seen. If the film captures the emotion that Schlink misses, it could be powerful.