The Nightingale is the story of two sisters caught up in Nazi-occupied France, and how they survive – and fight back – in their own distinct ways. Viann’s top priority is survival, for both her and her young daughter, as life gets increasingly difficult as the war continues, while Isabelle, the younger, feistier sister, joins the Resistance and finds a way to fight more actively as the Nightingale. Except their real last name is Rossignol, which literally means Nightingale, so it feels a little weird that that’s the secret identity she chose. I mean, I guess it’s easier to forge identity papers in WWII but wouldn’t the Nazis have eventually followed up with anyone named Nightingale/Rossignol? Anyway.
This is very much a “woman’s war” book, and it introduced me to a unique perspective of World War II and France during that time. Isabelle and Viann both are interesting, well developed characters, and I liked seeing how they tried to make the best of their situations. Viann spends the war getting increasingly beat down as food and fuel become more and more scarce, and she struggles to make ends meet, while Isabelle thrills to finally find a way to feel useful and productive as she assists the war effort.
Here there be spoilers: the book suffers for having an extended bait-and-switch, with the introductory chapter and a handful throughout written from the perspective of an old woman living in Oregon many years later. These chapters deliberately obfuscate the identity of this old woman, so that it comes as a surprise when you find out Isabelle dies just after the end of the war, as a result of her stay in a concentration camp, and the old woman is in fact Viann. In order to accomplish this, though, it requires killing off Viann’s daughter sometime in the intervening years, and this is done in the closing pages with a reference to her having died of cancer many years prior. It also doesn’t explain why she left France, and her family’s farm, when she spent the majority of the book insisting she couldn’t leave a place that had been in the family for centuries, even though literal Nazis were making her life hell. Both of these decisions are a little disappointing and felt a little cheap. I was interested enough in the story that I didn’t really need this extra layer; even if I did I think I would have preferred it played straight, with Viann’s identity known all along. It’s not enough to take away from the heart of the story, though, so it’s still a worthwhile read.