Set in Germany-occupied France during World War II, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale gives perseverance a whole new meaning. This gripping story follows two estranged sisters as they struggle to survive the Nazi invasion of France in two vastly different fashions.
As the novel begins, the older and more levelheaded of the two, Vianne, is married and raising a daughter in the town of Carriveau, France, while her younger and more rebellious sister, Isabelle, is expelled from school and has just fled to her father’s apartment in Paris.
When the Nazis seize Paris, Isabelle is sent to the countryside to live with Vianne in an attempt to keep her safe. On her trek, Isabelle witnesses countless atrocities committed by the invading troops and decides she wants to be part of the resistance before even reaching Carriveau.
At this point, though the narrator’s descriptions of what Isabelle sees are disturbing and inhumane, my admiration for Isabelle and my intrigue about what was going to come next made this story impossible to put down.
Vianne’s husband is soon sent to the front and the enormity of the situation weighs on her. Vianne follows local rules and lays low, trying to keep her daughter and sister out of harm’s way. Her feelings of responsibility for the family’s safety, coupled with her naivety to the troops’ actions, lead her to be wary of Isabelle’s impulsive decision to fight back.
Though Vianne attempts to dissuade her sister from getting involved, strong-minded Isabelle barely falters in her decision to join the resistance.
I felt for both sisters in this moment, as Vianne’s protectiveness reminded me of the indisputable sense of security my own older sister gives me, and I could tell this made Isabelle’s decision a tough one.
As the war intensified, so did my captivation with this story. The sisters end up going their separate ways, both living through inconceivable horrors. Vianne is coerced into situations to protect her daughter, while Isabelle becomes a crucial member of the resistance.
Both Vianne and Isabelle exhibit uninhibited courage and end up risking their lives for the cause. Timid yet strong Vianne hides Jewish children while Nazis billet her home, and daring Isabelle makes treacherous journeys to help stranded allied airmen return home.
Though parallel timewise, the sisters’ stories could not be more different. Hannah’s unique writing style lets readers see the war unfold from each sister’s different vantage points. Providing an undeviating view into each sister’s life lets the readers feel as though they are truly getting to know both Vianne and Isabelle.
Told mostly from the third-person omniscient point of view, Hannah gives the readers direct insight into each character’s actions, thoughts and deepest feelings throughout the story, and writing in the present tense lets readers feel as though they are in on the action alongside the characters.
Romance plays a small role in this novel, giving sparks of light to an otherwise dark period of time. Though most of each character’s story revolves around hardship, sacrifice and loss, themes of love and family resurface throughout.
Although this is a historical fictional novel, it feels all too real. Hannah’s characters are loosely based on real people, as Isabelle was inspired by resistance pioneer Andrée de Jongh, and the events that take place in the story mirror World War II with accuracy.
Through immense research about the war and thorough investigation of Andrée de Jongh’s legacy, Hannah paints an incredibly authentic story of unbridled bravery and determination. She wrote both a novel of historical relevance and progressive feminist ideals.
Both heart-wrenching and inspiring, this is a must-read novel and will forever remain one of my all-time favorite books.
I give this book a 5 out of 5 stars and would recommend it to anyone interested in the little-explored powerful positions of women during a time period dominated by men.