On the streets of West Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg finds his life irrevocably changed. Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old tram conductor, discovers him doubled over in sickness in front of her apartment and decides to escort him home. After his health improves, Michael returns to the place where he was rescued to thank her. When asked to wait outside her door while she gets dressed, Hanna catches Michael taking a peek. He runs away, mortified.
Not long after his embarrassing episode, Michael feels compelled to visit her again, drawn by his attraction to her. So begins a dysfunctional love affair. The two meet in her apartment every day, and Hanna insists that Michael read her classic literature before they bathe and make love. One day Hanna disappears without notice, and Michael is left with his insecurities, trying to make sense of his fleeting time with her.
It isn't until Michael is older and attending law school that he sees Hanna again in an unexpected place. Hanna is on trial for war crimes she committed when serving as an SS Guard at a concentration camp. But her depravity isn't the only thing she was hiding...
This taut, engaging, and morally complex novel has layers that are begging to be peeled. Although their relationship is very troubling, the story is so unique and compelling that the book is un-put-downable. I also highly recommend the film, but watch it after you read the book! It helped me flesh out some of the questions the book poses.
Recommended by Leah Youse