Bear with me, I’m finally starting something I’ve wanted to do for a while and that’s launch a section dedicated to reviewing the books I’ve read. I have read around 30 since the end of 2016 and I’m going to pick up with my most recent ones and maybe venture back to cover my most beloved ones. I know I need to cover a beloved author who got me back into books to begin with as well: Christopher Moore, but that’s for another time…
I was skeptical of Kristin Hannah, the lawyer turned author, but I happily gave this book a read and wasn’t disappointed! Wow, it’s a book that simulates itself as a ride. Slow start and then takes off and doesn’t stop until the last page. The Nightingale is an incredible novel with characters that you can recognize and feel with every emotion humans have to to offer. Hannah did an amazing job writing this and offering strong femininity along the way. The story focuses on enduring female characters (sisters) who persevere through WWII-occupied France. It defines their lives through struggles, heroics, family, death, love, and so much more.
The book starts in the year 1995 with an unknown character narrating who is quickly described as an older woman, a mother, who is battling her third bout of cancer. It then escalates into into her background of how she got to Oregon from France in the 1930s. The sisters are introduced, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol, and they have an age gap that portrays itself evidently in the first few pages as they are dropped off to a foster mother after their mother suddenly dies and their father takes on an absent role. Vianne is submissive, naive, and flippant initially as she coped with her mother’s loss and father’s abandonment through rapid release. She is in denial that France will be invaded and brought into the war even after his husband is drafted and then taken as a prisoner of war. Isabelle, meanwhile, is the polar opposite being dominant, longing, and independent. She defies everywhere she is placed after boarding schools and her abusive upbringing with Mother Doom. She leaves her last boarding school to fight her way into helping free France from German rule.
The realities of the war are hinted throughout the story with how France becomes occupied under the direction of the WWI hero Philippe Pétain. The majority of France believes in Pétain while he establishes a “Free Zone.” Meanwhile, Isabelle listens to the up-and-coming General Charles de Gaulle who wants to liberate France and directs ideas to revolt against their oppressors. Through my own research, I found out that Pétain was tried and convicted of treason after the war, which made sense through even this fictitious story.
The sisters clash many times within the story and real facts of the brutality are weaved within the pages. Vianne’s best friend is a Jewish woman, Rachel, who ultimately is deported to Auschwitz and Vianne decides to harbor her then “illegitimate” son while boarding with a German captain, Beck. Isabelle falls in love with her first savior, Gaeten, and their story unfolds tragically as they were both orphaned, resistant to loss, and being rejected. It was fascinating to see the sisters handle life under German rule so differently, with one defying from the start (Isabelle) and then the other trying to cohabitate in order to protect her way of life she diligently carved out with her daughter (Vianne).
Ultimately, both stick to their French roots with Vianne hiding and saving numerous Jewish children and Isabelle crossing the Pyrenees mountains with downed Ally airmen to return and aid Allies with intelligence. After Captain Beck’s demise, Vianne is sexually assaulted and raped by her next billet, Von Richter. Isabelle is taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she contracts typhus and pneumonia. The entire story culminates into a surprising twist and ties together at the very last chapter. I sobbed several times through story at the loss of those who fought to Free France, the Jews and other minorities who were brutalized, and the struggle the sisters face at reconciling their relationship with themselves and their alcoholic father.
Overall, the story was deep. I read on Amazon that Isabelle’s character was taken from another Belgium story by Andree de Jongh, which was oddly what I expected while reading. It seemed to tie two established characters on top of a further fabricated story to play on emotions. It’s highly emotional and achieved a decent look at how the women resisted and fought through WWII, which was fantastic in itself, though.