“In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
Thoughts on the Novel: World War II is one of the few wars which truly did affect every country in the world as well as almost every person, either directly or indirectly. Yet, most historical novels set during this period tend to focus on the men who leave to fight or the women left behind and the general trend is to set such stories in the United States, Great Britain, or Germany. Very few novels set out to tackle the war from the female perspective in occupied France, but that is exactly what The Nightingale attempts and successfully accomplishes.
Set on the eve of the Nazi occupation of France, The Nightingale details the war experiences of two sisters who have long been torn apart by their childhood losses and two very different, clashing personalities. The older sister is married and a mother and, after a childhood of loss and suffering, just wants to survive until her husband returns. The younger sister, forced at a young age to fend for herself, wants to make a difference in the war efforts and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the Resistance. Individually, the sisters experience hardships and unfathomable decisions upon which hinge life or death.
The thing about Vianne and Isabelle is that neither one is an enjoyable character at first. Vianne is meek, complacent, anxious and more than a bit selfish when it comes to protecting her own. While readers can understand all of her decisions, readers might not like them and may even consider her fairly despicable for the choices she does make. Isabelle is Vianne’s exact opposite – bold and reckless where Vianne is scared and timid. However, Isabelle is too rash and quick to act. Her impetuosity is tiresome, and her strong emotional reactions to everything can be overwhelming.
A funny thing happens, however, as the story continues to unfold. These two women, both of whom were so easy to dislike, become very real in the reader’s mind. Suddenly, the decisions Vianne must make are more bothersome not because she cannot make a decision but because she must choose between two impossible situations. Similarly, Isabelle becomes a mature and selfless young woman who carefully analyzes every thought and action beforehand but who still has the ability to seize the moment when it most counts. Readers will soon find themselves not only wondering how they would react if put in Isabelle’s situation or confronted with Vianne’s terrible alternatives but also assessing whether they would have the mettle necessary to survive. Together, these two sisters show the danger, the trauma, the fear, the heartache, and the brute determination of millions of women who kept their families intact and alive during the Occupation.
Like any good historical novel, The Nightingale details some little-known elements of World War II. The Nazi occupation of French towns and villages gets particular attention, as does the Resistance and its increasing success in battling the Nazis from inside their own occupied territory. While much of the story does occur within Vianne’s small village, which becomes a microcosm for all of France, Isabelle’s story takes readers across Europe as she strives to save as many soldiers as she can. The situations each woman experiences are harrowing in the extreme, while the emotional trauma of them drive home the constant terror and guilt-ridden compromises almost everyone in occupied Europe faced during the war.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a spectacular piece of historical fiction. Not only does she explore an often-ignored aspect of World War II, she does so by using characters that are deeply flawed but for whom readers soon become highly empathetic. Her careful attention to detail along with a gorgeous turn of phrase creates a gut-wrenching story that haunts readers long after the last sentence. In other words, this is exactly what a historical novel should do.