Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.
As the war progresses, the sisters’ relationship and strength is tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.
Vivid and exquisite in its illumination of a time and place that was filled with atrocities, but also humanity and strength, Kristin Hannah’s novel will provoke thought and discussion that will have readers talking long after they finish reading.
I didn’t really know what to expect going into The Nightingale. From its blurb, I suspected it would be a romance set during World War II – The Bronze Horseman, French Edition. And honestly, it has been sitting on my bedside table for the last five or six months because of my suspicions.
Although there are elements of a romance to this book, it is so much more than that. It is often assumed that war is all about men, and we forget about those on the home front. The Nightingale is about the unsung heroes of our history books, the women of WWII. It is about the Nazi occupation of France, and the women who fought to survive. It is about women who wish they could fight for their country, and women who secretly do. It is about the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who were left behind and forgotten.
The book focuses on two sisters who have two very different ways of survival. Vianne, the elder of the two, has a husband who is imprisoned in a Nazi war camp and a Nazi soldier billeting in her home. She frustrates her sister, Isabelle, with her compliance. Isabelle is brash and bold, and does not understand why Vianne is so reluctant to rebel against the Nazis. In all honesty, I found Isabelle to be quite a frustrating character, but also one who you can’t help but become invested in. She has a brilliant character arc, and the growth she displays is astonishing. Isabelle is loosely based on Andrée de Jongh, who risked her life to save countless American and British serviceman escape from Nazi-occupied France and Belgium.
Hannah’s writing is vivid and evocative, conjuring up the horrifying nature of war without being overtly graphic. You can feel Vianne’s hunger, desperation, guilt and terror. When Isabelle joins a rebel group, and no point do you feel that the stakes aren’t high enough for her. The relationships between characters are well-developed and I found myself becoming really emotionally invested in them.
If I had one complaint, it would be this: plausibility is often sacrificed in the name of ‘keeping the reader on the edge of their seat’. For example, Vianne’s Jewish neighbour is told that Nazis will arrive at her house and take her away. In the space of two hours, she is able to acquire false identity papers, and then when trying to cross a peaceful checkpoint, the German guard inexplicably machine guns everyone down (taking special care to shoot the woman’s nine year old daughter).
Also, Hannah is quite obviously done her research into the Nazi occupation of France, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of it could’ve been edited out. A lot of the story took place in a rural village, yet it seemed overrun with the Gestapo, SS, and German soldiers as if it were the Nazis’ headquarters. I don’t doubt that there were some kind of German authority running French villages, but there would’ve been a difference between the number of soldiers stationed in a village, and the number of soldiers stationed in Paris. German resources were not infinite.
I did suspect the plot twist at the end, but I still found it genuinely moving and I think that Hannah managed it well. If you’re looking for a book with a cast of three-dimensional female characters from all walks of life, then I would highly recommend you pick up this book. If you’re a historical romance fan, please keep in mind that romance does take a bit of a back seat in this one – it’s there, just in the background.
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.