- What: The Nightingale
- Who: Kristin Hannah
- Pages: 438, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2015
- The lit: of 5 flames
Some books can’t escape you. It’s not just your inner circle reading them; rather, it seems every bibliophile on the planet has picked up a copy at some point. You can’t explain why you haven’t done so yourself, but you know one day you will. And that day will be a good one.
The Nightingale has been that book for me the past few years. I’ve had multiple friends and family members rave about this historical fiction favorite, and one of them compared it to All the Light We Cannot See, a fellow World War II novel I adore. Surely I’d have the same feelings toward this one.
It’s had a far greater reach though. I’ve seen many subway riders reading it, and once I asked one of them what they thought about it.
“Oh I cried on here yesterday reading it.”
I owe my cousin, Julie, who sent me her copy of The Nightingale, among other books I can’t wait to read. Thanks to her, I could no longer be distracted by other novels. It was time to dive into this instant classic, and I’m so happy I did.
Vianne Mauriac and her sister, Isabelle, are used to distance, loneliness, and heartache. As children in France, their father abandoned them in the quiet village of Carriveau. The pain from his wife’s death and the trauma he experienced from The Great War were too much for him to handle along with two young girls. While Vianne fell in love at a young age and found comfort in her home life, Isabelle, the younger and rebellious sister, always sought to win back her father’s love and to find a more meaningful and purposeful life. She’s added many expulsions to her name, and they’ve always been followed by adventures to Paris to be with him. These patterns and norms of the sisters’ lives are about to be tested, though, with an entire continent on the brink of war.
When Germany conquers France in June 1940, Vianne’s husband is sent to battle, and she’s left to care and provide for her daughter, Sophie. Meanwhile, Isabelle finds herself in the middle of a mass Parisian exodus, attacks, and unspeakable atrocities as she tries to find her way to Carriveau. Once there, the sisters can’t put their differences behind them, and they argue incessantly about responsibility and purpose. The tension leads Isabelle to disappear headfirst into the Resistance.
Here, she will learn the value of family and sheltering your loved ones and that maybe Vianne’s intense protection over her family had a point. Simultaneously yet miles away, Vianne will also turn a corner as she begins to understand her sister’s courage to fight. Both sisters will risks their lives for a common good that seems lost in the darkest of times.
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us, it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” — The Nightingale
One reason World War II stories are so intriguing is because there are a plethora of stories and perspectives to tell, including those from Holocaust victims, soldiers, Resistors, skeptical Nazis, and families left behind with nothing but fear, worry, and nearly useless ration cards. The Nightingale somehow includes all of these in 438 pages.
On the surface, that may seem overwhelming. However, Hannah manages to make these stories flow seamlessly and connects the multitude of characters and perspectives with little to no gaps in the plot. In this way, Hannah showcases how many different lives were intertwined during this time period.
“Perhaps that’s why I find myself looking backward. The past has a clarity I can no longer see in the present.” — The Nightingale
Hannah makes you feel every emotion the characters feel: fear, worry, loneliness, sadness, hopelessness. And you feel them so heavily, so near a breaking point, that you wonder how these characters — and thus the real-life people who actually endured these tragedies — will ever survive.
How can Vianne continue as essentially a single mom with next to nothing to eat, no heat in her home, immense worry for her husband, and fear of the Nazis who have inhabited her town and home? How can Isabelle continue in the Resistance knowing one wrong move by a number of people could end her life or her family’s? Furthermore, knowing that this plot was based on actual events and actions taken by Belgian hero Andrée de Jongh makes Isabelle’s story and the emotions it creates all the more powerful.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.” — The Nightingale
The Nightingale, in all of its glory, power, and emotions, isn’t perfect though, and two things prevent me from assigning it five flames: slight cheesiness and some scenes that seem near impossible. I was about 100 pages into the book when I got a hunch that some of the lines and feelings from the characters were just a bit too dramatic. My suspicious were vouched for by a college friend during a Facebook book discussion.
“Despite it being about something very real and horribly tragic, I felt like it was super corny and unbelievable,” my friend Hope wrote.
Kirkus Reviews was in agreement too:
“Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.”
Not to give too much away but to exemplify these points, Isabelle meets a young man early on and with whom she witnesses the Nazis’ attacks on France. They instantly fall in love, and this sentiment becomes a motivator throughout much of the book. As someone who doesn’t believe in love at first sight (hate me if you will), my eyes feel compelled to roll at this notion. And coming back to this relationship at many points detracts from the harrowing tale Hannah has set out to tell. I would have preferred the story stick to tragedy rather than inject new love.
Hannah excels at storytelling nonetheless. Her novel hits you time and time again with reminders that while this is fiction, it’s also narrative of true events even more heartbreaking than the words Hannah has written. She gives you a page-turner no doubt, which proves why the The Nightingale has become a cultural phenomenon to be talked about on many subway rides to come.