The Nightingale was published just this year and was chosen as one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for February. Penned by Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters in World War II France.
Vianne Mauriac lives in a quaint French village a couple of hours outside of Paris. Her home in Carriveau has been in her family for forever and it is where she and her sister, Isabelle, grew up after they were sent away by their father, a drunk and emotionally broken World War I veteran, upon their mother’s death. Vianne was 14 years old and Isabelle only 4 when they came to Carriveau as girls. Reeling from the loss of their mother and the abandonment of their father, Vianne couldn’t cope with her own sadness, let alone care for a young sister, especially one as strong-willed as Isabelle. Vianne’s inability to care for Isabelle feels like another abandonment and it will color their relationship for years to come.
At the beginning of the novel the war is still just a rumor, something to try to ignore. Vianne lives a happy and calm life in Carriveau with her husband Antoine and their young daughter Sophie; Vianne does her level best to pretend the war is far away and is successful until Antoine is called to be a soldier. There is no more pretending. Meanwhile, Isabelle has been kicked out of yet another boarding school for her headstrong and impetuous nature and is back in Paris. Isabelle’s father cannot care for her and with war at Paris’ front door, he sends her to Carriveau to stay with her sister. Isabelle leaves Paris with thousands of other refugees and on the road out of town, in her first true encounter with the war, is bombed by German warplanes. Isabelle survives the bombing with the help of Gaetan, a young man she meets on the road. They help each other to survive and I think it would be fair to say that without Gaetan, Isabelle’s life would have been completely different. He is the one, after all, who introduces Isabelle to the idea of the French Resistance. The German attack on the road out of Paris, falling for Gaetan – Isabelle’s entire future is decided in these moments. She cannot do nothing.
Isabelle arrives to a barely recognizable Carriveau, being a town with an airfield, the Germans have already occupied. Supplies and food have been commandeered by the Germans. French citizens must stand in ration lines for what little the Germans feel the need to share. And worst of all, German soldiers are moving into the homes of French families. Vianne is forced to host a young German soldier – the sisters are actually lucky, their soldier is a kind, honest man – but he is still the enemy. Isabelle joins the Resistance while living with a Nazi which is both brave… and dumb. She starts small, distributing anti-Nazi propaganda around Carriveau. This isn’t enough though and the tension in the home is more than Vianne can handle. Isabelle and Vianne both know that it is only a matter of time before Isabelle mouths off to their lodger and is arrested or worse.
So Isabelle returns to Paris where she plays an integral role in the Free French Resistance. Isabelle does her part by helping downed airmen escape France – this is massively dangerous work since “aiding the enemy” is punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp or death. Isabelle helps to establish an escape route through the Pyrenees mountains and into Spain, and shepherds over a hundred airmen to safety throughout the war. Isabelle’s code name is the Nightingale and she is brave and beautiful which means the Nazis look at her and see a simple, pretty girl. She is mostly able to hide in plain sight, until her success at aiding the enemy makes the Nightingale pass well known to the Nazis. They will stop at nothing to catch her. As the war continues, Vianne finds her own bravery. As the atrocities committed against the Jews becomes more and more aggressive, Vianne finds that she can longer keep her head down. Vianne takes into her home a young Jewish boy, her best friend’s son, and raises him as her own. Harboring a Jew is a crime and one Vianne commits brazenly, with a Nazi under her roof. Vianne’s own personal war resistance is the sheltering of young Jewish children which she does with the help of the Catholic orphanage in town.
This book has everything: love, war, murder, adventure, beauty. Hannah’s writing is transportive. The beautiful descriptions of peaceful French village life, to the intense and chilling descriptions of Isabelle’s Nightingale pass, you truly feel like you are there with them. Hannah doesn’t shy away from the torture and ugliness of war, and human nature, but she handles these topics with honesty and mercy. She also finds a way to show the goodness of people in a world that has gone mad, and to show just how complex the ideas of “friend” and “enemy” really are. I got this book for Christmas and read it in 3 days, I just couldn’t put it down. Isabelle and Vianne are the kind of characters that stay with you and I’m glad to know them. If you are at all interested in World War II, a story of love and forgiveness, beautiful writing and/or wonderful characters, please, please read The Nightingale.