Spoilers in this review.
This book made me tired. I confess, I do not get what everyone sees in The Nightingale. I feel like because it is set in WWII/the Holocaust, and we know that terrible things happened, this book had ALL OF THE TERRIBLE THINGS and we just accept that EVERY TERRIBLE THING happened to the characters because, of course, it was a time of terrible things. But it was too much; it was simply not believable to me after a point. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The protagonists are Isabelle and Vianne, two French sisters. These two are polar opposites and rather than being subtle with how that is the case, the writing has them always yelling their differences at each other through stock phrases like “I can’t just do nothing!” (Isabelle) and “It’s too dangerous!” (Vianne.) They have a strained relationship already because, I guess, Vianne neglected Isabelle following the death of their mother when they were younger. I kind of hated the way this dynamic was handled. The source of the tension is something to do with Vianne insufficiently stepping up to the plate as Isabelle’s older sister to look after her. It’s weird though because there is a lot of self-flagellation in Vianne’s internal monologue about how she needed to be there for Isabelle, and nothing specific from Isabelle’s end other than a general attitude of derision toward Vianne. The antipathy seems partly derived from a vague sense of Vianne not wanting her around, but it’s actually more about Vianne’s general personality, how Isabelle sees her as kind of cowardly and overly accommodating. So it’s just this ill-defined discomfort between the two sisters that is the source of a lot of emotional strife, but I kind of didn’t care because I didn’t have a good enough idea what the problem was.
Similarly, the characters themselves were so one-dimensional and laughably cliched that I was having a hard time taking anything that happened to them seriously. There was no sophistication in their arcs and everything they did was predictably reactionary. Vianne, in her role as persecuted mother and homemaker, suddenly becomes responsible for sheltering all of the town’s Jewish children. Isabelle, as the passionate revolutionary, becomes the mythical “Nightingale” — distributor of contraband material and covert operative who helps downed Allied airmen escape occupied France over the Pyrenees into Spain. Described broadly like that, it doesn’t sound that crazy, except that the way it all comes about is that plot just happens to them through a series of coincidental and/or convenient incidents. Isabelle’s induction and rise through the Resistance doesn’t strain incredulity too much — maybe because espionage is something I have very little (zero) experience with so I can’t say one way or another how an outfit like this would have operated — but Vianne’s side seems almost absurd. She has this one Nazi solider billeted in her home, and there is this tangent of an attraction between them that made me want to barf. Then she gets a meaner SS officer, and things get worse for her, but meanwhile she has adopted her Jewish friend’s child and managed to get a bunch of other orphaned Jewish children official papers and secured away in their local church, because she knows one of Isabelle’s contacts and everything just magically comes together when she needs it to and falls apart when the plot needs something new to happen. Without bringing up really specific plot details it’s hard to explain the totality of why the story seemed so contradictory and haphazard, but it just comes down to, IMO, a really perfunctory writing style that just didn’t bother to develop and interrogate the consequences of any one significant moment before just moving onto the next plot point and requiring the characters to navigate their next hurdle.
I was really disappointed by how much this didn’t work for me, since it has gotten rave reviews elsewhere. I really wanted more out of the promise of a deep dive into the “home front” — exploring what the women in France were up to in WWII, since so many stories just focus on the men out there fighting, and surely war was hell for the women too. This book just did it in such a shlocky way.