Longtime Cannonballers who pay attention to such things probably know that there are a few things a writer can do to ensure I read their work. Kristin Hannah, in writing The Nightingale hit almost all of these! World War II? Check. European setting? Check. Sisters doing it for themselves? Check. Impossible love? Check and check! There was no way I wasn’t going to at least like this book a little bit, and I really enjoyed it.
The Nightingale is the story of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, and their struggles to survive in a France ravaged by war. The girls’ mother dies when they are quite young. Their father, mentally incapable of being a father after fighting for France in WWI and watching his young wife die, decides to send them to their aunt in the countryside. Isabelle, young and vivacious and curious, acts out and yearns for the attention of a father who appears to no longer care. Vianne is quietly devastated and learns to rely only on herself. When Vianne meets and falls in love with Antoine and becomes pregnant, the two must marry, leaving Isabelle quite lonely. Vianne sends her away and she spends her adolescence being kicked out of one boarding school after another. She finally exhausts all possibilities as she turns 18 and returns to her father’s apartment in Paris to force him to allow her to live at home. Her ‘happiness’ is short-lived, however, as the Nazis march through France toward Paris. Isabelle is sent away and walks with thousands of other Parisians, toward her sister’s home in the remote village Carriveau. It is on this walk that she meets Gaetan, a recently-freed convict who chose fighting for France over further incarceration. While Gaetan and Isabelle are together on their journey, the Nazi planes fly over, annihilating thousands of innocent French citizens and forever cementing in Isabelle the desire to fight for her country in any way she can. When she arrives at her sister’s home, however, she’s forced to behave for the sake of her niece and because Vianne has been forced to host a young German officer in her extra bedroom.
I won’t go into too much more detail aside from saying that Isabelle quickly finds a place working for the Resistance, while Vianne struggles to hate her gentlemanly and kind German guest, all the while trying to protect her Jewish best friend Rachel. The story is told almost in flashback, as the beginning is narrated in first person, assumedly by one of the sisters, but the reader isn’t sure which one until the end. I really liked this book. Vianne and Isabelle are great characters, if a little too conveniently opposite. Isabelle easily represents the hotheaded young heroine who will risk everything for a good cause. Vianne is more reserved in order to make sure her daughter is safe, and struggles to do the right thing while also not endangering her own life or her child’s. Both sisters’ experiences are sadly true to life; many European citizens had to make impossible choices in order to survive WWII. I think that’s why I enjoy reading this kind of stuff – I like to picture myself in these situations and wonder who I would be. I probably would be more of a Vianne than an Isabelle.
Hannah’s writing flows easily and I found myself turning page after page and reading into the late hours to finish this one. If you liked All the Light We Cannot See, or any of Elizabeth Wein’s novels, you’ll enjoy this one as well.