The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Book Review)

21853621Genres: Historical Fiction, WWII 

Summary: In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.

France, 1939
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 France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.

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 the compelling and mysterious 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. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.

My thoughts: I am breathless. What a novel. I always gravitate towards books centered around WWII because that time period should never be forgotten and each book I read teaches me more about that part of history that shook the world to its core. This story focused on two estranged sisters in France who lead very different lives. Vianne is a grounded and sensible mother who does everything she can to keep her child safe in their town that was taken over by Nazis while her younger sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious and passionate woman who does everything she can to rebel against the Germans by helping downed British airmen return back to their country to continue their fight in the war.

Both of these women show enormous strength in different ways. Vianne is a resilient, intelligent woman and mother who masters the art of staying in the background as she quietly tries to protect the ones she loves. She puts her child first, at all times, and learns how to fly under the radar when a Nazi officer is billeted at their house. Vianne’s narrative continually reminded me that WWII was just as a dangerous time for the women who stayed back home, the ones who are often spoken about the least. They were forced to do anything they could to keep their family and themselves alive, and Vianne’s bravery left me awe-inspired of all that she had to sacrifice to live in a brutal time that tested everyone’s physical and emotional strengths.

Isabelle, on the other hand, hides in plain sight and risks her life to help others cross over borders to get back to safety, even if it’s only a few men at a time. She is a reckless teenage girl who matures into a strong woman in such a subtle way that made me feel as though I were growing and learning alongside her. At first, she was this outspoken girl who didn’t care about the consequences of her actions, but she quickly learns how to navigate a war-torn world in hopes of defying the odds set against her. She is a woman who refuses to let the world drag her down, and the sheer cruelty that she had to face made my stomach twist and my eyes fill with tears because it only reminded me that she was one of the millions, at the time, who struggled to keep themselves upright in a society that wanted them extinguished. While she is a fictional character, her bravery and the situations she was put in reminded me of what people had to deal with during the time period.

Something that I enjoyed about Hannah’s writing, that I fell effortlessly into, was the overlying dread woven into the narrative, especially Vianne’s storyline which I connected more to, emotionally. The alternating points of views from both of these sisters left me on the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen to them if they made the wrong move or stepped out of line. The sheer emotion packed into every page of this novel had me pushing back tears as I dove deeper into the story. I’m always grateful to novels that can pack a punch, and The Nightingale made me feel as though I were walking beside these two women going through the worst situations a person could face, and that fact alone left me in awe of Hannah’s ability to paint such a vivid story in my mind. 

There’s not much more that I can say about this novel without spoiling it, but I am so glad that I picked this up and was endlessly recommended it by strangers and friends alike. This is an important historical fiction exploring the complexities of war, the sacrifice parents make, and the bonds we create and hold onto during the direst of times. The Nightingale highlights two very different women and how they each react and adapt to this terrifying time in history, and I cannot recommend it enough. Please, please pick this up.

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