The Nightingale was one of the most popular books of 2015 and—clocking in with 85% five-star reviews out of nearly twenty thousand reviewers—was deservedly one of the best. While it’s not my favorite book of all time (it’s hard to beat Jane Eyre, eh?), I thoroughly enjoyed it and admired what the author, Kristin Hannah, accomplished with it.
The Nightingale traces the World War II experiences of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who illustrate two varying ways of facing—enduring—the horrors of war. Vianne—wife, mother, and housewife—finds out just how deeply war reaches into her “everyday.” And Isabelle, the young and reckless little sister, discovers that war presents once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The essence of their story is that war makes us figure out what we’re made of.
War strips away all the things that we depend upon: our money, our government, our homes, our friends, our family (and especially for many women, our husbands), and our faith. Vianne and Isabelle, both with original, convincing personalities, react to their losses in contrary ways. Vianne tends toward denial, blind trust, and then resignation and a tendency to let the enemy walk all over her. Isabelle leans toward hot-headed rebellion and defiance, a desire to do something, and a determination never to surrender. The German arrival in France brings both sisters to a tipping point—how will they choose to live?
I haven’t read any of Kristin Hannah’s other books, but I admire her easy, effortless writing style and attention to detail. Don’t be fooled by her reputation—The Nightingale isn’t romance or chick-lit. It’s an immersive experience of life in occupied France—sights, sounds, smells, food—of what it was like to flee the German invasion of Paris, watch the Nazis round up the Jews, work in the French Resistance, or live in a house with occupying soldiers. And Hannah faces the hard questions of life head on. How would YOU react if war came into your life? How do you treat loved ones that have hurt you in the past? What do you do when the enemy starts blurring the line between enemy and friend? How far would you go to protect your friends or your family? How do you explain war to your children? Why does God allow such horrific events? How far will you go to follow your conscience?
What makes The Nightingale stand out from the rest of 2015’s popular fiction? I think part of it lies in our fascination with World War II. We know some of these people—Vianne and Isabelle are our mothers and grandmothers. And Hannah draws us in, by finding and exploring the heart of emotions and relationships. For me, The Nightingale brings to fiction everything I love about studying social history—what life was like every day for women, children, the elderly. This is what happened around and between and because of those dates and political movements in the history textbooks.
If you enjoy historical fiction or are interested World War II, you will enjoy the unique perspective of The Nightingale.
[Fair warning: there are some graphic and mature scenes and some language.]
“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” (1)
“These questions are not about them, but about us…. Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you.” (126)
“Love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” (410)
“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.” (436)