Years ago, I read Kristin Hannah’s novel Firefly Lane. I loved it and cried three different times while reading it (that’s a good thing)! Ever since then, I’ve been eager to read another of her novels, so I was excited when my cousin chose The Nightingale for our online family book group. I was a bit disappointed when I realized it was set during WWII, just because I’ve read so many novels set during the war, but was pleasantly surprised to find that this novel is a different perspective on WWII than I’ve read before – centering on the occupation of France and the role of women in both winning the war and in saving people. As with other Hannah novels, it was intricate and full of emotional depth.
The novel is a bit slow to start, setting up the main characters, but quickly picks up its pace. It opens in Oregon in 1995, with an unnamed elderly woman who is packing up her belongings to move to a retirement community. She opens up an old trunk and finds an identity card from the war for Juliette Gervaise. Her adult son sees it and asks who that was, but it is clear that the woman has secrets she’s never told her son – and she’s still not quite ready to tell him.
The action then shifts to 1939 in France, with chapters alternating between Vianne, a young mother living in a small, rural town in the Loire Valley with her husband and daughter, and Isabelle, her nineteen-year old sister. Isabelle is being thrown out of yet another boarding school as the novel opens and sent home to her father in Paris, who hasn’t even tried to take care of his daughters since their mother died about fifteen years ago.
He dropped them both off with a woman who would board them in the town where Vianne still lives. Vianne thinks she got off easy because she met her husband at age fourteen, shortly after being dumped by her father, and escaped into love and then marriage. Isabelle, who was ten years younger, was left behind, first with the uncaring woman and later in a series of boarding schools that either kicked her out or she ran away from. Though Vianne knows she was too young to take responsibility for her little sister, she still feels guilty, and Isabelle is still resentful. Both sisters were marred by their abandonment.
As the story progresses, the war abruptly enters both women’s lives. Vianne’s husband, Antoine, is conscripted into the armed services (along with most of the men in France) and must leave their idyllic country home and his adored family, leaving Vianne alone with their daughter. Having watched her father come back from WWI a changed man, Vianne fears not only for Antoine’s physical safety but for his mental health as well.
In Paris, the war intrudes even more suddenly and starkly into Isabelle’s life. Contrary to what anyone thought possible, the Nazis move into the city and quickly take over. Isabelle is swept up in the mass exodus of people out of Paris, walking for days, carrying her possessions with her, in a stunningly punishing march, as she tries to get to Vianne’s home, where her father thinks she will be safe.
But, of course, the Nazis soon occupy that little country town, too. German soldiers billet in homes all over town, including Vianne’s. Overnight, their quiet life is turned upside down, as food becomes scarce, Nazis come into their homes to take whatever furnishings and valuables they want, and long days are spent standing in line for meager rations that barely keep them from starving. Before long, just when they think things can’t get any worse, their Jewish neighbors begin disappearing. Eventually, Isabelle secretly begins working for the resistance, and Vianne finds her own role in the war.
Two aspects of this novel really captured my attention and fascinated me: the details of what daily life was like – both in small towns and in Paris – during the Nazi occupation of France and the roles that woman played in winning the war and saving their fellow citizens. I hadn’t read much on either topic before, despite the many novels I have read set during WWII. We generally think of men off fighting the Nazis and women at home taking care of their families, but this novel takes a much deeper look at women’s roles during the war, and it’s captivating.
As with Firefly Lane, I also enjoyed the complex, realistic characters that people this novel, flaws and all. Hannah is adept at capturing real-life emotions in her characters and stories – and in wringing those emotions out of her readers. Yes, I cried while reading this novel, too, though at a moment that surprised me. The elderly woman in modern times comes back into the story once in a while, though her identity is unknown until the end of the book.
Besides its intriguing history and interesting characters, this novel also has a wonderfully twisty plot that will keep you guessing at every turn. The things that happen are often horrible and had me yelling at the book, “No!” but this is, after all, a book about WWII. There are also plenty of heartwarming moments that remind you of the power of compassion and the strength of humanity. This novel, with its unique and eye-opening perspective on a well-worn topic kept me riveted until the very end. The characters felt like old friends, and I was glad to have taken this journey with them.
440 pages, St. Martin’s Press