I’ve been reading a lot of books that are set during World War II (and I haven’t even gotten to All the Light We Cannot See or Boys in the Boat yet) and this is the latest. Kristin Hannah’s novel focusing on the experiences of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, in France during the Occupation was a compelling read for me even though I felt I had seen/read a lot of this before.
There has already been a lot of tragedy and upheaval in the sisters’ lives before the war begins. Their father comes back from World War 1 a damaged man and when their mother dies, he essentially abandons them. Vianne is a young teenager and Isabelle is four when he takes them to their summer house and leaves them in the care of “Madame.” At seventeen, Vianne escapes by falling in love with, getting pregnant by, and then marrying her high school sweetheart, Antoine. However, Isabelle is left behind and is shuttled from boarding school to boarding school as she gets kicked out again and again for breaking the rules. The sisters’ relationship is almost as fraught and weighted down with baggage as their relationship with their father. This family dysfunction is soon overshadowed by the Nazi invasion. Isabelle is in Paris, visiting her father when it happens while Vianne is living in the small town of Carriveau with her daughter, Sophie, having recently watched her husband leave for the front.
The novel then follows the experiences of both sisters over the course of the occupation. Their initial reactions are very different. Isabelle, furious and hotheaded, wants to do something brave and impetuous to help while Vianne hopes to keep her head down and simply survive and keep her daughter safe. However, one of the most satisfying things about this novel is how the sisters are not as different as they or we think—both fight their own battles, take great risks, and suffer great losses.
Though I wouldn’t describe this novel as great (God in Ruins is a really hard act to follow), I think Hannah has done a solid job of capturing both a chaotic and horrific time in history and the dynamics of a dysfunctional family struggling to heal.