The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Genre: Historical Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
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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.
Well. I have so many mixed feelings about this book. I’m not quite sure where to start, or what order to go in…
Hmm. I guess I’ll start with the bit I’m not really knowledgeable to comment on: the historical accuracy. I don’t really know much about France in WWII. I heard some reviewers saying there were some very accurate details, and others saying it was inconsistent and that there were a lot of inaccurate details. All I know was that I felt like I was learning a lot about Occupied France, and it felt accurate.
The writing style was … odd for a WWII novel. It read a lot like Chick Lit, especially in terms of tone and pace. But it’s still a WWII book, so there was still all this death and horribleness and so many dark themes. It was definitely a different combination. In her focus on women and children, Hannah wrote a lot of scenes that involved the death and suffering of children that were difficult for me as a mother to read, and now to get out of my head. Honestly, I’m not sure whether the applaud her for her bravery, or to be mad at her for taking a cheap shot to get me emotional. Beware, trigger warnings. SO MANY TRIGGERS. Especially death, violence, and sexual abuse. And, you know, concentration camps. Because I somehow thought THAT would get left out of this book, and I was wrong wrong wrong.
Really, that’s what keeps this book from being a 5-star for me. The Holocaust (and WWII in general) is kind of my kryptonite. I don’t know what it is, I just always get so upset. So many of the things the Germans did were so terrible. It’s beyond words. It’s hard to enjoy something that makes you start spiraling into such a negative place.
But there were so many things I did like. It was romantic without being a “romance” book. Like, there was romance, but it wasn’t ABOUT romance, if that makes sense. The writing style moved quickly. The characters were women you could really relate to. Isabelle, the quintessential impetuous trouble-maker who just wants a cause; Vienne, the housewife who just wants a quiet life, but discovers her own strength; Rachel, the sarcastic friend we all need in our life; Anouk, a chic rebel willing to risk her life to save her country.
In the end, that’s what this book was ABOUT. Women in the war. All the ways, small and big, that women made a difference in the war. The difficulty of getting left behind. All the ways the women lost their lives, their innocence, their families. This war is so often told from the point-of-view of the men, and it was really amazing getting to see some women heroes. The coolest thing was that they’re all based on real-life women who made a difference. I am in awe of the ways these women risked their lives to help others!
The book opens with a line: “In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.” I thought it meant that in love we are optimistic about the best versions of ourselves, but that in war we often find out the worst about ourselves. But after finishing I expect it means that in war we find out how much MORE we can be than we ever imagined. Because all the women in this book were amazing, brave, caring, and everything I will probably never be.
I also loved that Hannah included a regular German soldier in her narrative. Not an SS Guard, the men who are so famous for their cruelty in the concentration camps, but a regular soldier. And I loved that she portrayed him as just a man. He missed his family, he was far from home, he did what he did because he was scared of the way they could hurt him or his family if he didn’t follow orders. I think as we become increasingly polarized in the 21st century this is an important thing for us to remember. The other side, the “enemy”, is just the same as you are, a person trying to do their best in the world. All of the Germans weren’t evil. So many were just trying to get by. It’s unfair to paint the entire country as a criminal because of the actions of a few terrible men.
If you’re into super accurate war novels and great literary fiction, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re looking for a lighter, feminine take on WWII I strongly recommend this novel. It was passionate, beautiful, and heartbreaking, even if a little fluffy at times.