A bestselling historical fiction novel set during World War II, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is best if you only think of it as fiction. Hannah may have researched the details of France and WWII, but her characters initially struck me as stereotypical:
- Vianne, the older responsible sister
- Isabelle, the beautiful and spontaneous troubled teen
- Gaetan, the striking escaped prisoner, headed to the French resistance movement
- The broken and brooding father
- The handsome, kind Nazi
Thankfully, Hannah developed more complex emotions and motivations for her characters as the story progressed, or this would be the end of my review.
The Nightingale plot tells the tale of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, and their struggles and triumphs of war. Without giving away all the story, both sisters become prisoners of the war. First, when their father returns from WWI a broken man, and they lose their mother to cancer. Their father sends them to live with a distant relative in Carriveau. They create cages a second time when the Nazi forces occupy France and Isabelle is determined to fight and drive out the Germans, while Vianne’s concern is for her daughter’s safety, not to get noticed, and be okay until her husband can return from the war. Lastly, both sisters become literal prisoners.
While Hannah has two plots for two sisters, there was also another secondary timeline. The book opens up in 1995, with an elderly woman who must come to terms with her memories. Hannah attempted to create a bit of mystery around the woman’s identity. I think those few interludes could have been removed, rewritten, and placed at the end of the story. This timeline’s impact doesn’t pay off until the final chapter, anyway.
The two sisters’ personality differences create strife, regret, and shame for both. (Like many real-life sisters.) In the end, they have an opportunity for understanding and friendship. (Also, like many real-life sisters.)
I found Hannah’s writing descriptive enough to imagine Paris, the village of Carriveau, and other sets in the narrative. While moving and written with care, the plot is not one-hundred percent believable. As a bonus, the chapter lengths were just right for me to consume on my daily lunch breaks. If you like historical fiction, you will likely enjoy this book. If you are looking for a romantic or young adult story, this isn’t for you.