Even though I'd read three books in the past two days, I couldn't help myself but pick this one because 1) it had the Oprah seal on the front 2) it's an international bestseller and 3) the description included "erotic" and "morally devastating" which sounded quite cerebral and a bit juicy.
Ten pages into the book I decided to close it and let my eyes rest. For once my hand wasn't throbbing and I wanted to sink into the quiet until I woke up at 4 am feeling like a metal stake was being driven through my hand. I got up, took Alleve, iced my hand and finished this book before I woke the kids up for school.
The story is set in Third Reich and post-WW2 Germany, focusing on the coming-of-age wisdom journey of a young man who is repeatedly (happily) seduced by a woman twice his age. Their relationship continues with tersely described afternoon romps and soon include him reading great works of literature to her. Through they couple easily weather minor bumps you would expect when a 15 year old and 30 year old "date," one day she quits her job, leaves her apartment and disappears.
In many other books I've been assigned by students the main character drops everything to follow a runaway ex love or lover (Paper Towns, Dogs of Babel, Virgin Diaries)- but this book is different.
The stoic narrator goes on with his life and we fast forward from before WW2 to after the war has ended and former Nazis are being tried for crimes. The narrator finds his former love, Hanna, in a courtroom on trial for locking prisoners in a church and leaving them to die when the church was bombed and caught fire.
Hanna protests that she did the best she could, but ultimately she is blamed for writing the report that damned her. The narrator sits quietly watching the trial as a law student, unable to either comfort Hanna or jump up and scream to the world "SHE CAN'T READ!" He sits quietly while she is sentenced to life in prison, then for over a decade he quietly supports her by sending tapes himself reading literature.
No kind words, no hello, no I love you, just him, reading the books to her in her jail cell.
At the end of the book, the narrator gets a call from the jail telling him that Hanna will be let out soon, and needs help getting an apartment and finding a job.
Despite the fact the narrator has moved on with his life, he drops everything to help her, and then the book takes a left hand turn and made me cry.
A smart and compact piece of modern literature, The Reader is achingly devastatingly beautiful.