The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Well I have found the first book that made me cry in 2016. I’m actually a relatively stoic reader (or so I like to think) but this book just gutted me.
In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.
This book is a highly emotional read. Like all World War II novels, The Nightingale touches on so many timeless themes – good and evil, trust and betrayal, danger and safety. The stakes are high in The Nightingale, and each twist and turn was more brutal than the last.
The Nightingale touches on aspects of World War II I knew essentially nothing about. Most of the WWII fiction I have read has been primarily concerned with the Holocaust. The Nightingale focuses on two different elements I wasn’t familiar with: German soldiers who ended up billeting (lodging) in the houses of civilian French women whose husbands were at the Front, and the attempts to rescue Allied airmen who had crashed into enemy territory. It was fascinating to me to learn about a new side of WWII that I had never learned about before.
The character development of both Isabelle and Vianne is really well-done. You get to see Isabelle go from being an impetuous girl to a courageous and focused young woman. Vianne, who is frustratingly passive for the early half of the book, finds her own quiet courage and method of resistance. Both characters frustrated me at times, but ultimately won me over with their humanity and compassion. Their heroism is so inspiring, and this quote describes it perfectly:
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
And the ending. Oh my goodness, the ending. I’m lucky I bought this book because there are drops of my mascara-stained tears all over the last ten pages of this novel. It will gut you.
But, of course, this is not quiet a perfect book, if such a thing exists. Oh Mon Dieu, the cliches are strong in this one. No less than five characters make dramatic declarations as they die. I won’t say who, obviously, but I am not exaggerating; five characters actually do this. Examples:
- “I love you…” *dies*
- “tell them that I….” *dies*
I don’t mind a good last-dying-breath speech or cliffhanger, but this happened five times with five important characters. It felt very melodramatic and bit like a cheap trick to get readers to cry (it worked).
The are some several small issues that gave me pause including odd time jumps and incongruent timelines – Isabelle is in Spain for a week and then its “months later” as she returns to France. It’s nothing that interferes with the plot, but it did give me pause.
Also, unless I’m missing something, Kristin Hannah did not dedicate the book to – or thank in the acknowledgements – Andrée de Jongh. the actual Nightingale of World War II. That seems like quite an oversight.