For the most part, you know what you’re getting when you read a book that takes place during World War II and is set in a location that was occupied by Germany. Even if you find a book or movie that tells an inspirational or uplifting story within that backdrop, it’s always delivered with the requisite edge of horror. How could it not? There is no story to tell from that period in human history that isn’t tainted by the atrocity.
I’m not sure if The Nightingale qualifies as either an inspirational or uplifting tale, although its unlikely heroes will manage to fill you with a sense of pride and triumph, even as you hold your breath at the tenuousness of their situations.
The story follows two grown French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne lives in a rural town outside of Paris with her husband, Antoine, and their daughter; Isabelle starts out the novel at a finishing school, but quickly gets kicked out (the last of many finishing schools she’s been kicked out of) and returns to Paris to live with her father. When the Germans invade, Antoine is sent to the front and Isabelle is sent to live with her sister and niece.
From there the story follows the two sisters as they struggle to come to terms with the war and life under Nazi occupation. Headstrong and untamable Isabelle leaves Vianne’s home shortly after a German soldier is billeted there, and joins an underground resistance group based out of Paris. Soon she is risking her life to transport fallen Allied soldiers into Spain via the Pyrenees Mountains. Meanwhile, Vianne—whose husband goes missing shortly after reaching the front—struggles to keep her household together while battling her own confusing feelings about the Nazi staying in her home. I loved the portrayal of the Nazi, because he is neither a monster nor does the author attempt to make us feel that he’s “simply a good person who is a victim of circumstance.” He embodies the deeply held ugliness of the Nazi philosophy and how it corrupts a person’s capacity for humanity.
Vianne’s story had a lot more dramatic impact than Isabelle’s, even if Isabelle’s had more of a sense of adventure. Vianne not only had to survive and provide for her daughter despite no income and increasingly despotic food and supply rations, but because she’s in one place the entire novel, she really gets a chance to witness the slow devolution of rights for French citizens and Jews, and then the terrifying deportations. I’ve read many books that depict the horrors of the concentration camps, but it had never occurred to me just how horrible it would have been to simply WITNESS all that horror and feel powerless to stop it. To be both a victim AND an observer and have to cope not only with fear, but an impotent rage and paralyzing form of survivor’s guilt.
You may be wondering, at this point: Why do we need yet another World War II novel? Well, this story was written for the untold heroes: the women left behind. As one line toward the end points out—there were no parades held for them. They did not “return” from a front to ticker tape and applause. In fact, the women were the ones lining the streets to cheer on their men as they stumbled home, dazed and broken, despite being dazed and broken themselves. Not only had they been forced to hold things together by themselves, but they were a large part of the embedded resistance movement—they risked life and safety to transport soldiers, supplies and information behind enemy lines. That’s also why I liked the two different sisters’ stories—Isabelle (aka “The Nightingale”) represented an out-and-out spy putting herself in direct danger; Vianne’s heroism was more “domestic” but took just as much fortitude, bravery and strength as her mountain-climbing sister. The stories play against each other to demonstrate how both are equal versions of heroism.