Historical Era: WWII
Historical Rating: History Rich – filled with insight into life in German-occupied France, work camps, the Resistance networks, etc. and based on real life stories/events.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Book Jacket Summary: “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 a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
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 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. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace, and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion, and circumstance each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France – a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
HFA Review: Kristin Hannah has truly outdone herself with this book. The “novel for a lifetime” comment may be going a tad far, but this book is a bona fide historical fiction masterpiece. If a rating of 6 out of 5 made any sense visually (without readers thinking the numbers got switched and cry out for better editing), then this book would get the extra point. This book focuses on the “women’s war” – how women dealt with being left behind by their husbands and suddenly thrust into the head of the household role, what they endured to survive (especially in German-occupied countries), and how they secretly and bravely contributed to the efforts to defeat Hitler and the Nazis. That right there is a lot to jam into one story and it is done seamlessly through the choice of the two main characters, Isabelle and Vianne – each telling a big piece of the women’s story and their relationship beautifully demonstrating the often opposing view points.
Vianne and Isabelle are sisters who survived a very rough childhood, but in drastically different ways. Vianne made friends, fell in love, got married, and started a family. Isabelle, 7 years Vianne’s junior, became rebellious and fiercely independent. When the war starts, Vianne watches her husband head off to fight for France while she is left to care for their daughter, their home, and wait/pray for Antoine to return. Isabelle is forced to go live with Vianne, instead of remaining in Paris, for her own safety by Isabelle and Vianne’s father. Isabelle, to get to Vianne’s house, ends up on a journey that almost kills her and greatly changes her view of the Germans, igniting her rebellious spirit into overdrive. She immediately wants to support General de Gaulle and the Free France movement. Vianne and Isabelle don’t last long under the same roof, especially when a German solider moves in to billet with the family, because Vianne fears that Isabelle’s loose tongue and anger will get them all killed.
Eventually, Isabelle is recruited by the resistance and ends up heading back to Paris, diving further into the movement. From that point on, the story starts to weave back and forth between the two sisters’ stories in a poetic juxtaposition between a woman ready to give her life to fight for her country as she heads from one place to the next and one who is fighting to keep her little corner of the world and the people in it safe and as mentally un-scarred as possible. Isabelle jumps feet first into helping downed airman get back to allied territory, taking them on an extremely dangerous journey through occupied territory. She becomes known as the Nightingale and soon the Germans are doing everything they can to track her down. Even though Vianne appears to be cowardly at first (when compared to her sister), by biting her tongue and following the German mandates, no one is safe and no one is left unaffected by this war. Even Vianne is slowly but steadily forced to make harder and harder choices/sacrifices as she watches her world crumble around her, taking with it people she cares about immensely. She too starts to resist, in her own ways. Subtle, quiet, but brave nonetheless.
This book is beautifully written and the plot keeps the pages turning. Will Isabelle get caught? Will Isabelle and the man she loves get a happy ending? Will Vianne be able to survive the severe lack of food and the horrors brought on by having a German soldier living under her roof? Will Vianne get caught? Will her Antoine come back? Will they be able to pull their family back together? Will Vianne and Isabelle ever see each other again and make up for the hurt between them? Finding out the answers is a well-crafted ride and should be an addition to your must-read list.
Historical Content: Though the characters in this book are made up, they are based on stories Ms. Hannah came across when researching another one of her novels, Winter Garden. Isabelle is based on a real-life woman named Andrée de Jongh who helped get downed airmen out of enemy territory and back to allied territory. Vianne is based on other women who acted in the same brave manner (but that part I’m not going to give away). The book also recreates with much authenticity, though liberties are taken for the sake of the plot, what life was like in France during the war – from the lack of food, the horrible German mandates, the ways Jewish people were slowly but brutally forced from their homes and into camps, to the way people did rise up to force back their oppressors. The details are so rich in this story that when the book is put down one almost needs a moment to remember it’s 2017 and the war is over.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015
Pages: 570 (including Author’s Notes)