The story is told from the point of view of Michael Berg and begins when he is a fifteen-year-old boy living in Germany. When he is sick on his way home from school, Hanna Schmitz, a thirty-six year old woman, helps him. Once Michael has recovered he returns to Hanna to thank her for her help, and from there a sexual relationship develops. Later in Michael Berg's life he finds himself a spectator to her trial for murder. This book is pretty short and it's probably best that you know as little as possible before reading it, so you can view the characters without any preconceptions, but the relationship and the trial constitute pretty much the whole plot.
I appreciated how Schlink managed to tell such a straight, simple story with so many layers of gray and questions of morality. Although it might be easy to simply condemn Hanna for sexually preying on a fifteen-year-old, I could sense there was a story and force behind her actions that did not excuse her behavior but might have explained it. This is even more explicit during the trial, in what I thought was the strongest section of the book. Hanna is on trial for a horrible crime and she is probably guilty. But at the same time she is weak and naive and losing because she was a part of a system that she couldn't avoid. And now that the system has changed she doesn't know how to work within it, and she's become a scapegoat despite the real guilt of many others. You can't help but feel sorry for her. Some of Hanna's worst actions were her failure to act, and what makes this book even more intriguing is that Michael Berg, the other defendants, the other witnesses, and a large section of society in this novel, are also guilty of failing to act.
The third section of the book I did not find quite as powerful as the second section. Maybe I just didn't connect enough with the characters to really care about them, but it's probably the third section that keeps this book from being one of my top favorites even though it is so well-written. I'd definitely recommend it, though, and I hope the movie does it justice.