by Kristin Hannah
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention. Lately, though, I find myself thinking about the war and my past, about the people I lost. Lost. It makes it sound as if I misplaced my loved ones; perhaps I left them where they don’t belong and then turned away, too confused to retrace my steps.
This is the only novel I have read by Kristin Hannah, and I have to say, I am anxious to read more. She has a beautiful writing style. Not all authors can write storylines in tandem and have you feel the same emotions for one character as you do another, especially when both characters are so different. The story is richly woven with a backdrop that is both sorrowful and hopeful.
The Nightingale follows the lives of two sisters during the time period of WWII.
Vianne, the mature and responsible older sister of the duo is a mother to a young daughter and has carved out her life in the happy family home. She lives in a small, quiet village in France where she teaches young children at the local school. She has a husband that she loves dearly and best friend right around the bend, their daughters are as close as the mothers are. One day her husband gets the order that he must go to war, something Vianne has been equally dreading and pretending could never happen to them. Her world is very tiny and she is in denial that anything untoward could ever happen to her perfect bubble of happy.
Isabelle is a vivacious teenager with an unrelenting desire for rebellion. She lives in the beloved city of Paris where she goes to school and works at her father’s bookstore, and where she finds the prospects of war all very romantic – at first. She is impetuous , tenacious, and has the recklessness of youth pushing her forward, without a care for what lies behind her – only what lies ahead. She gets wrapped up in the underground Resistance Movement; the French fighting the Nazis from the inside out, and as a result is finally able to find a purpose to her life.
“Antoine kisses Vianne with a gentleness that made her want to cry. “I love you,” he said against her lips. “I love you too,” she said, but the words that always seemed so big felt small now. What was love when put up against war? “Me, too, Papa. Me, too!” Sophie cried, flinging herself into his arms. They embraced as a family, one last time, until Antoine pulled back. “Good-bye,” he said. Vianne couldn’t say it in return. She watched him walk away, watched him merge into the crowd of laughing, talking young men, becoming indistinguishable. The big iron gates slammed shut, the clang of metal reverberating in the hot, dusty air, and Vianne and Sophie stood alone in the middle of the street.”
Once war comes to Paris in full force, Isabelle must leave the city and travel to be with her older sister in the country. She does so quite reluctantly and with a lot of protestations, but her father is insistent. The relationship between Isabelle and her father is strained at best. In fact, Isabelle isn’t really close with anyone in her family. She has always found her father and sister to be weak and for lack of a better word, cold. From my point of view, Isabelle initially comes off as a bit spoiled and angry. I don’t think she realizes the sacrifices that have been made for her so that she could have a semblance of a stable life, nor does she understand that her older sister never meant to be cold – she just felt she had to take on the role of mother and as such, had to leave childhood behind, all while desperately trying to carve out a piece of happiness of her own.
“After what felt like an eternity, silence fell. It was almost worse than the noise. What of Paris was left? By the time the all clear sounded, Isabelle felt numb. “Isabelle?” She wanted her father to reach out for her, to take her hand and comfort her, even if it was just for a moment, but he turned away from her and headed up the dark, twisting basement stairs. In their apartment, Isabelle went immediately to the window, peering past the shade to look for the Eiffel Tower. It was still there, rising above a wall of thick black smoke. “Don’t stand by the windows,” he said. She turned slowly. The only light in the room was from his torch, a sickly yellow thread in the dark. “Paris won’t fall,” she said.
On her way to the country, Isabelle comes across a young man in the woods and after striking up a conversation, they decide to travel the rest of the path together. In her efforts to impress him, Isabelle decides she is going to do something that matters. What that will be, she isn’t sure, but it will be something that will end up garnering a lot of attention – from both sides of the battlefield. She sets her mind to something and goes for it wholeheartedly.
I have read several books set during this time period and what I found unique about this novel was the perspective. It is told from the view of two Frenchwomen who are in their own way, fighting against the Nazi occupation and rebelling against the horrors of Hitler’s regime as well as finding empathy for the young German men who were caught up in something they had little choice about. The French suffer greatly during this war and this novel really humanizes that. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking and even though you know history and what happened, it is hard to read and hard to believe. But both women remain strong and steadfast through it all, finding ways to slowly move forward in an environment that continuously threw them the worst life had to offer.
As the story progresses, Nazis commandeer Vianne’s home and a soldier is made to stay with her. The feelings she has about Nazis and the feelings she has for this particular soldier are conflicting and she and Isabelle’s relationship becomes even more difficult. They have a hard time understanding one another and their points of view are very different; Vianne is a mother who is unwilling to do anything that could compromise the safety of her young daughter and Isabelle is an impetuous woman who only sees things in black and white.
Isabelle eventually goes undercover as an agent of the Resistance as The Nightingale; her job is to ferry Jews across the border to safer lands and she takes her job very seriously. The journey is always perilous and extremely dangerous but none of that will turn Isabelle from her goal. It’s infinitely exciting and so amazing to read, and it’s even more fascinating to know that Isabelle and her actions are based upon a real person. The acts of heroism and selflessness are extraordinary and so very touching.
“How can you be afraid?” she said to her reflection. She had hiked the Pyrenees in the falling snow and swum the rushing cold waters of the Bidassoa River beneath the glare of a Spanish searchlight, she’d once asked a Gestapo agent to carry a suitcase full of false identity papers across a German checkpoint “because he looked so strong and she was so very tired from traveling,” but she had never been as nervous as she was right now. She knew suddenly that a woman could change her whole life and uproot her existence with one choice.”
I fell in love with this book and had a hard time putting it down once I started. The characters are so compelling and so different from one another, and their sense of loyalty to country and kin is something that I greatly admire. I don’t know that I could have had the courage that these women did in those times; I would like to say I would have. I smiled and cried along with their journey and was very pleased with the ending. It gave a wonderful feeling of closure.
I highly recommend The Nightingale and I give it 5 out of 5 stars. It is a beautiful story of family and strength, and the story surrounding the war is original and never gets bogged down. The novel flows naturally and is easy to get wrapped up in, so many sure you have some time before you sit down and become enthralled!