The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (5 out of 5)
I had entered a giveaway for this months back on Goodreads. I didn’t win it. Holly was able to get me a copy via her rep (thank you, Holly). Then I put it in the TBR pile by my bed. Now, I’ve gotten in the unfortunate habit of trying to read at night in that bed. It does not work, because it’s entirely too comfortable and therefore, not much reading does get done. This does, however, mean I sleep better, so the tradeoff has be to a win-win ratio. Anyhow, I finally read down on the other titles that I was being bugged to get read, so I finally started The Nightingale Monday. I picked it back up Thursday night at 9pm, and at 1:30am, finally finished it. Bawling my damn eyes out (the ending and picking up of loose threads, along with bipolar hormone levels, helped this occur. Normally I am not a crier, either with books or in real life). This book, however, worms its way into your heart and your head, and by the time you reach the conclusion, well, you’re all over the place. And that, my friends, is why it’s a book that I’m going to go hog wild trying to get people to buy and read. I loved it that much. And yes, friends of mine who read tons of books and have pointed out that it’s similar to All The Light You Cannot See, thank you, you are correct in the time span being WWII. I like historical fiction, and this is another reason why I need to read it more.
This is a novel of family-specifically, two sisters. Vianne is the older sister who’s forced to grow up fast when her mother dies young and her father(who hadn’t been the same since he got back from fighting in the first war) just gives up on the two girls, basically leaving the girls and disappearing completely (until years later). Isabelle (aka The Nightingale) is the younger sister who had done everything in her power to gain her father’s affection, including being expelled from multiple schools, tantrums, and the like. She doesn’t react well to having to learn to live with Vianne and without her father in her life. Vianne is consumed with grief over her mom’s death, only to be saved by the love of Antoine, a good man. She becomes pregnant and marries, having several miscarriages that devastate her to the point that she continues to push Isabelle away. WWII threatens her happy life in the country with her husband and daughter, especially when her husband is drafted and goes away to fight. Isabelle, in the meantime, has been expelled from yet another school, and in the cloud of war, decides that she isn’t just going to sit idly by and do nothing to help her countrymen. Isabelle up and goes to Paris and informs her shell-shocked father that she is living with him and working in his bookshop. And then, as often sparkplugs do, she walks right into a situation where she is drafted into service- working against the enemy undercover, handing out propaganda telling the truth about what those pesky Germans are up to. The Paris that Isabelle had left was one of gaiety, laughter, secret rendezvous, wines, rich food, and joie de vivre. The one she returns to is dark, defeated, grief stricken, starving, and bled of its honor by Hitler and his psychotic army. Isabelle continues on with her secret life, until forced to flee to the country. Isabelle tries to warn Vianne that things are very bad indeed, but Vianne continues to believe the best will come of all situations, even with Beck, a German soldier, now living with her in the house. Isabelle continues sneaking out and doing her best to help people out, earning the name “Nightingale” working for The Resistance. She heads back to Paris, and finds out her father’s bookshop is now closed due to the war. Isabelle reopens it and begins working there, and uses that as a setup to try to conduct covert ops with those who are trying to flee. She’s recruited in a plan to help RAF (Royal Air Force) soldiers who land in enemy territory walk across enemy lines, under cover of the night, into Spain, where freedom lies. She has a hell of a time doing it, but she manages to do so, and continues to do so, despite pleas of her compadres to be super careful, as the SS are looking for her. She also manages to reconnect with Gaetan, her soulmate and comrade in many of these covert ops. That’s another small story weaved in. Vianne, back in the country, speaks up at school and Is fired from her job as a teacher. Rachel, her best friend next door, is rounded up and sent off on a bus. Rachel’s youngest daughter is murdered in front of Vianne and Rachel. Rachel hands off Ari, her son, to Vianne and begs her to keep him safe and raise him. Vianne makes up a story that he’s a child that her cousin had and then passed, so she “adopted” him. This buys time, and now Vianne is busy not only trying to keep her household going with hardly any food or money, but to keep her attraction to Beck at bay, trying to raise Sophie, her child with Antoine, and now raise Ari as her own (they rename him Daniel so not to arouse suspicion that her child is Jewish). She often regrets her emotional distance from Isabelle and worries about what her sister is up to. Isabelle ends up back in the country, hiding out with the body of a dead RAF pilot in Vianne’s barn, until she can escape. Vianne flips out, but things get a lot worse when Beck discovers Isabelle. All hell breaks loose, Beck ends up dead, and things get very ugly for Vianne. She is detained and questioned, but thankfully Gaetan and others have buried the body of Beck, so she isn’t taken in by the SS. She does, however, find herself assigned a new SS officer who’s pure evil. Vianne ends up being abused, insulted, and eventually raped and impregnated by the officer. Isabelle, on the other side of enemy lines, takes on her most dangerous mission yet and ends up captured and sent to a concentration camp. Can the sisters make it through this horrific war? Will they reunite with Antoine and Gaetan? Can they overcome their individual horrors to bond again and reunite as sisters? Will their families be restored? Will life in Paris ever get back to normal after the war is through with them all? What does this tell you about the hardships women had to endure during WWII? Plenty. It isn’t pretty a lot of the time, so if you’re looking for a light version of WWII, try Danielle Steele. Kristin Hannah minces no words, and writes it almost exactly how I often imagined it was reading my social studies book back in grade school. If you want a true reckoning of what people caught in the web of World War II went through, this is a good lesson plan to start with.
I really cannot say enough how I love the reality of this book and how well she painted the dark landscape of Paris during the dawn and aftermath of WWII and Hitler’s reign of terror. The relationship between two very opposite sisters is not only spot-on and at times hard to read, but it weaves the very backbone of what this novel rests upon. There are no words to describe how hard it was to read how the war tears these two apart and ultimately, brings them back full circle. There are deaths, sacrifices, betrayal, violence, and a world of hurt, but underneath, there is a hope that refuses to be shut outside. Every single supporting character- and there are many, make no mistake- has a part to play, whether small or gigantic, in how this story plays out. I will be stunned if this is not made into a movie, because it would be a definite vehicle to play out onscreen, given the right actors and directors, which Hollywood usually does a fine job of messing up (There’s a reason booksellers tell customers “Read the book” instead of “See the movie”). But while we wait to see if the beauty of this is somehow tarnished on the big screen somewhere down the road, read the book and see that beauty for yourself. Well done, Kristin Hannah, well done.