I actually listened to the audio version of this book by Kristin Hannah last summer, but apparently I forgot to write a review of it. I liked it so much that I nominated it for my book club to read and it got voted in, but when I went to look up my blog post to refresh my memory of the book before discussing it, I couldn’t find anything :O
So, I’ll have to remedy that now and I apologize if I can’t remember much because it has now been so long since I listened to it.
I had heard really good things about this book from friends I trust and I happened to be between audiobooks and scrolling through Hoopla when I found this and checked it out from my library on impulse. Like I said, I liked it enough to nominate it for my book club, so that alone should give you an idea of how much I liked it. Part of it was that we’ve read a few other WWII books, including The Lilac Girls, which I really did not like. The whole time I was listening to The Nightingale, I just kept thinking, “This is what The Lilac Girls could have been!”
This book focuses on two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who lost their mother when they were very young, their father was either unable and/or unwilling to take care of them on his own, so he sent them off to boarding school, where Vianne did pretty well, but Isabelle, always a rebel, not so much. Isabelle has been expelled from one school after another, while Vianne got pregnant early, followed by a shotgun wedding. Her father disowned her after that, the only concession he made was to give her the family house in the French countryside while he went to live in Paris.
Meanwhile, Isabelle has gotten kicked out of the last boarding school that would take her, so she has nowhere left to turn other than to go live with her sister, even though by this point they’ve become estranged from each other, as well as their father. Vianne’s husband (whom she loves, despite the shotgun circumstances of their wedding) has to go off to defend France’s border against Germany. He doesn’t expect to be gone long, but the reader can guess how that’s going to turn out.
This is when Isabelle shows up, needing a place to stay. Pretty soon, the Nazi’s have taken over and the Vichy government is in control, which Isabelle doesn’t like one bit. They start making changes and asking everyone to turn over their radios, to which Vianne doesn’t object right away because it doesn’t seem like such a large sacrifice to make, but it makes Isabelle bristle and this difference between the two sisters only grows.
Isabelle (unbeknownst to her sister) joins the resistance, which sends her to Paris, where she goes to live with her father, a drunk who still doesn’t want her around, only to find out that her father is also involved with the resistance.
Isabelle ends up helping guiding fallen Allied fighter pilots across the Pyrenees mountains and into Spain, which is neutral in the war. It’s a grueling, highly dangerous task, but she does it several times under the pseudonym, “Nightingale.”
Meanwhile, Vianne is stuck in her house trying to protect her child. An officer is assigned to live in her house, but he seems like a pretty good guy … for a Nazi. He respect’s Vianne and her space and even brings home choice cuts of meat and fish … in exchange for information. He asks Vianne for the names of all the Jewish families in town, and she gives it. She initially holds back the name of her friend, Rebecca, but he already knows Rebecca is Jewish and he prompts Vianne to add her to the list. Nothing happens at first, but later Rebecca loses her job as a teacher at the school with Vianne and then she and her children are required to show up to be taken away to concentration camps. They try to make a run for it in the night instead, but they don’t make it and Rebecca’s daughter is gunned down. Rebecca makes Vianne promise to protect her son, and Vianne does, changing his name and telling everyone he’s an orphaned nephew from out of town.
The story goes back and forth in time from WWII to 1995, with one of the sisters telling the story as an old woman looking back on her history. It’s not revealed until the very end which sister is telling the story and I really didn’t like that aspect of the book because I felt it was deliberately misleading – I thought it was one sister, but it turned out to be the other. Either way, it doesn’t explain how the WWII narrative is able to jump from one sister’s story to the other when they were working on opposite sides of the country if only one sister is supposed to be telling the story.
What did you think? Have you read it? What did you think of the narrative device? Did it work for you or not? Which sister did you think was telling the story?