Book Review: The Nightingale
“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.” So begins Kristin Hannah’s emotional novel The Nightingale, a moving story about two women in Nazi occupied France. The novel follows the lives of sisters, Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, whose personalities could not be more different. Isabelle is a rebellious and impulsive eighteen year old girl. Vianne is older, was married at the age of sixteen to Antoine Mauriac, and has a young daughter, Sophie, whom she looks after at all costs.
In the novel, both women face daunting circumstances as the threat of Nazis invading France looms nearer. Tending to her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley and teaching at the local school, Vianne refuses to believe that Nazis will invade. But when Antoine is sent off to war, and the Nazis do invade France, bringing with them starvation, destruction of property and discrimination, Vianne and Sophie are forced to submit to the new way of life the Nazis inflict on France. Vianne must endure having a Nazi captain board in her very own home. While Captain Wolfgang Beck shows signs of kindness, providing Vianne and Sophie with food, news, and medicine, Vianne’s neighbors grow suspicious as they witness her and the Captain growing closer.
Meanwhile, shunned by her uncaring father, a Great War veteran, and struggling to connect with her estranged sister, Isabelle tries to stay alive when France is invaded. She soon meets and falls in love with Gaeton, a rakish man freed from prison to fight the Nazis. But when Isabelle is betrayed, she joins the French Resistance in an act of rebellion, ushering downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Dubbed with the code name “the Nightingale”, Isabelle delivers anti-Nazi handbills, risking her life repeatedly in order to save others.
The novel shifts among three points of view, that of Vianne and Isabel, both in 1940, and also that of an unnamed, elderly widow living in Oregon in 1995. It is clear throughout the novel that the elderly woman is one of the two sisters, but her identity is not revealed until the end. The Nightingale tells the stories of the two women separated by their conflicting world views, each on her own path toward survival and freedom during the war. Hannah’s novel fluidly executes the women’s point of view and showcases their strong and clashing personalities. Isabelle is active from the start, risking her life to save others as a rebel, while Vianne starts out a non-believer, but is thrust into the war once she realizes that her life and the lives of the ones she loves are in danger.
Kristin Hannah has built a name for herself as a best-selling romantic fiction novelist, but The Nightingale’s marketing emphasizes the historical fiction aspect of the book. Interested in women’s untold stories, Hannah searched historical documents to find evidence of women who made a difference during World War II, even if they had to pay a terrible price for their heroism. On her website, Hannah describes The Nightingale as “her favorite” book among those she’s written to date, and the work of which is most proud.
Despite its historical nature, The Nightingale, while not exactly maudlin, still reads like a romance novel. With its character development and scene descriptions managing to evoke emotion at every turn, it’s clear that The Nightingale was written by someone whose background is deeply set in romance. While the horrific events that took place in France during that time are not underplayed and are certainly shocking to read about, the romance aspect of the book might be seen by some to detract from the weight of the subject matter. However, for those who take the book as a romantic novel set in a historical time, and not a historical account, this book holds its own.
The elderly woman’s point of view in the novel, set in the United States in 1990s, brings the reader a quiet and “safe” breather to the highly intense lives of the younger characters. The female character who is at the end of her life and now going back to a place that once held horrors for her, adds a measure of relatability and connectedness to the characters and the story set in the past.
The sisters in The Nightingale, as different as their personalities may be, nevertheless both read as “ordinary” young women faced with “extraordinary” circumstances and decisions to make. Rising to the occasion because there is simply no other alternative, these young characters portray how an average young person may find a way to navigate through incomprehensible adversity using their own fortitude and intuition. Each sister’s personal character evolution from beginning to end of the war also adds an interesting element to the story.
The novel’s two sisters show only a glimpse of the determination and danger faced by millions of women who kept their families alive during the Occupation and made sacrifices to save others. The story tells about the ravages of war from a woman’s point of view as opposed to that of the soldier in the trenches and deals with certain issues that are unique to women. Skillfully written, Kristin Hannah emotionally describes the hardship and heartache experienced by the characters. Despite a bit of formulaic romance-novel style, The Nightingale is a good read.