A book review

#include <disclaimer.h> /* I am not now, nor have I ever been, a literary critic. Nor have I been a student of German literature. I am just a guy that reads. So if it seems like my review is shallow, incomplete, addle-brained, or insipid, node your own review. Thank you. */

Schlink writes in this novel of the love affair of fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and thirty-six-year-old Hanna Schmitz — its origins, its conclusion, and its consequences in Berg's life. Actually, to say it is the story of an affair between an adult woman and a minor is to unjustly simplify it. Into the book Schlink weaves the themes of German war guilt; unbalanced power relationships between lovers; duty and justice; love, loss, and betrayal; and many more. On top of everything else, the narrative is delightful, the writing crisp, and the pace perfect.

I am unsure whether the story is in any way autobiographical, but the author succeeds in telling a thoughtful, personal tale about coming to terms with a relationship rooted in inequality and deception. Hanna is often cruel and cold to Michael, and he tortures himself in any number of ways to keep in her good graces. Their relationship begins as a sexual one. Being a young man of fifteen, he is understandably mesmerized by the steady supply of sex he gets. As their relationship develops, they spend progressively more time together. One of their favorite non-sexual activities is Michael reading to her (thus, the title). He confuses his feelings of sexual gratification and intimacy with love for Hanna, but for Hanna, one gets the sense that the relationship is quite different.

To her, Michael is a plaything. She is the one making all the terms in the relationship from the beginning. She welcomes him into her arms when she wants him, and pushes him away when she doesn't. This pushing and pulling has a corresponding depressing and elating effect on Michael's emotional state. They fight and make up, and the fights seem to center around the abnormal needs each brings to the relationship. There is an episode where Michael leaves to get breakfast after spending the night. When she awakens and misses him, she is deprived of her plaything and throws a tantrum when he returns. For his part, when she rages against him and denies herself, he feels abandoned, hurt, and lost, like a child torn from his mother, to such a degree that one cannot help but to think of Freud's Oedipus complex.

The relationship continues to have ups and downs, and eventually, she leaves him without so much as a note of farewell. Naturally, he is devastated by this abandonment. At the same time, he has been feeling that he has betrayed her by continually denying and concealing their relationship to friends and family. He projects this guilt, in the Freudian sense, onto Hanna by telling himself she left because of him and his public rejection of her. These emotional wounds follow him into manhood and affect his adult relationships.

The book quickly moves from adolescence to young adulthood where Michael is a law student. At this stage of his life, years and miles removed from Hanna, Michael learns some of the secrets Hanna concealed from him. I will not reveal what these secrets are as not to spoil the book, but let it suffice to say that it more directly hints at Hanna's motivations for her interest in Michael. Michael deduces that the reason Hanna left was not because of him at all, but rather she left because these dark secrets were at last catching up with her.

Time passes, and Michael marries and has a child, but since he still carries this baggage from his earlier relationship with Hanna, the marriage does not last. He finds that he cannot help but compare his wife to Hanna. Everything his wife does, he says, is wrong because the standard he judges her against is the unattainable Hanna. Despairing over his failed marriage, he initiates contact with Hanna once again. The form this communication takes is taped recordings of him reading books to her. Doing this brings him satisfaction and a way to salve his wounds. Her responses are brief and not very encouraging at first, but he continues to send her tapes for ten years.

In the end, Hanna never finds peace. She cannot escape the demons tormenting her even though she satisfies her obligations to society. Nor can Michael give up on her, try as he might. Michael must ultimately face living in a world without Hanna, and the book does not tell how he fares. Without her, he must find some other way to define himself, and we are left with his questions vexing us as much as they vex him.

I am leaving a lot out, as you can probably tell. You can also guess that I am dancing around a lot of plot points. I don't want to give anything away. I found this such an engrossing book that I would have choked someone who gave away its secrets before I had finished. I'm still thinking about it. By all means, read it. If you have read it, and want to talk about it, I would love to hear from you. Email me or /msg me.

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