Title: The Nightingale: A Novel
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Copyright: February 3, 2015
Format: Hard Cover, 593 Pages
Genres: Historical Fiction, Historical Women’s Fiction, Historical War Fiction
Price: $11.99 [Kindle], $22.60 [Audible], $11.99 [Nook], $11.99 [Google Play], $11.99 [Apple Books], $4.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]
In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.
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 a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
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 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. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.
The year is 1939 and so much has happened since the turn of the century. There was a war known as the Great War (World War I), women finally got the vote in 1920, the Roaring Twenties promised a good time, the writers we know as “the Lost Generation” wrote some of the most profound works of literature, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, and the rise of National Socialism brought about great conflict. Clearly the 20th century was a time of great and radical change.
In the years preceding 1939, there had been continuous talk of war. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the year 1933, the National Socialist (Nazi) party, not surprisingly, also grew in power. Throughout the 1930s, Germany increasingly became a Nazi-centric place, where Jews were ostracized, dehumanized, and were viewed as being the enemy. The establishment of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 deprived Jewish people, who had long been citizens of Germany, of their citizenship, even those who were veterans of the Great War.
America may have prospered in the 1920s, but Germany, after facing humiliation at the close of the first World War, continued to face a terrible depression in a regime they knew as the Weimar Republic. The depression was so horrible that German money was practically useless and people were burning the money to keep warm during the cold winters. This set the stage for a messianic figure, the Führer [meaning Leader or Guide] to sweep in and save the German people from continued ruin.
The Germans took over France on 22 June 1940. What followed was a total oppression of the French people, a people occupied by a brutal occupier. Like any occupier throughout history, the Germans requisitioned radios, personal property, and took all of the best food. In the French cities and villages, like Kristin Hannah’s Carriveau in The Nightingale, all of the best food went to the Germans and many a French person went without food. In time, Jewish people, many of them long-time citizens of France, began to get deported to Germany, Poland, or to other areas towards Eastern Europe. What was to follow was the deportation of all able-bodied French men to become laborers for the Reich.
For centuries, the French have always been a very patriotic people and it truly showed in the manner in which they fought back against their occupiers. The movement famously known as La Résistance, quite literally “the Resistance,” struck back with fervent vigor against the occupying army. They were known for engaging in guerrilla warfare, blowing up trains, sabotage, and an extensive network of spies. Often times, those that were in the resistance, who were partisans, and spies ended up in concentration camps or were shot by a firing squad. Needless to say, France during this time is a very dangerous place with treachery at every turn. Eventually, the Germans became harder on the French people and neighbors were turning in neighbors just to be in the good graces of their occupiers. If you want to read Charles de Gaulle’s speech, click here.
It is present day Oregon and an elderly widow lives alone. While we are not told her name, we find that she has just recently sold her house and that she is going to be placed in an adult care facility at the behest of her son, Julien. Just months ago, her own husband died and she discusses at length just how weak she feels herself to be. Her eyesight is growing weaker and she is not as strong as she once was. One day while in her attic she discovers something that reminds her of the past, of a life that once was and how it was a very different world. Discovering the name of Juliette Gervaise, our heroine slips back into the past, back into the world that once was…
Vianne Mauriac is a young woman who is happily married to her handsome childhood sweetheart, Antoine. The couple lives with their daughter, Sophie, in the tiny country hamlet of Carriveau, situated in the Loire Valley region of France. Living in a house known as Le Jardin (French for “the Garden”), the Mauriacs exist in what seems to be an almost idyllic manner with all sorts of splendid, happy moments. One day, when Antoine begins to mention the impending war, Vianne grows visibly frustrated and urges him to stop speaking about it. It appears that she would be happier just pretending such a thing will never happen. Shortly after, Antoine leaves Vianne and Sophie as he goes off to war to fight for the French army. Vianne is beside herself, wishing that she could hold him back from going, but he is determined to fight for France. With one last “I love you,” Antoine is gone.
Isabelle Rossignol is a very devil-may-care eighteen-year-old who has been thrown out of private schools and convent schools for as long as she can remember. After the death of her mother years before and being abandoned by Vianne, her sister, Isabelle is pretty much on her own. When she makes one wrong move at her current school, she is informed that she must leave and that means that she needs to return to her emotionally unavailable father, Julien, who lives in Paris. As he picks her up at the train station, he is furious that she is back and declares that she will not be staying long. Not long after, he sends her off to live with her sister in Carriveau, altogether washing his hands of her.
En route to visit her sister, Isabelle witnesses the horrors of war firsthand. When the Nazis advance with an aerial attack, she observes many people die around her from the onslaught and, as per usual, she finds herself very much alone. Filthy and surrounded by strangers eager to escape the attack, Isabelle is helped by Gaëtan, a young man who is dressed in dirty clothing. Unsurprisingly, she discovers that this young man is a criminal and that he was let out of prison recently, someone he asserts that she should be wary of. All throughout the chaos, he looks after her and makes sure that she survives the horrid situation. However, it is in watching innocent French people die that Isabelle’s resolution to join the French resistance is made. By the time that the two of them make it to Carriveau, Isabelle is injured and weak, having gone days without eating anything. It is there that she admits her feelings for the mysterious and young Gaëtan, daring to say, “I love you.” Like a scared rabbit, he tells Isabelle that she isn’t ready and leaves her at her sister’s house.
When the Nazis officially take over Carriveau, life turns upside down for the two sisters. Vianne is interested only in surviving the war and by keeping her head down so that she doesn’t attract any unwanted attention by the occupiers. Isabelle, on the other hand, is determined to join the French resistance and will stop at nothing to bring the Nazis down. The fact that Isabelle is very vocal on this point causes a lot of conflict between the two sisters. In time, a German Wehrmacht officer by the name of Captain Wolfgang Beck comes to billet with them and things take an interesting turn. Despite the fact that Beck is a very polite young man, Isabelle continues to rail against him and practically snubs him. Vianne, on the other hand, is kind towards the Captain and she seems to live with him in relative peace, but secretly fears that Isabelle will make them a target for the Nazis.
One day, Isabelle is caught by a man after she has made a “V” for “Victory” on a German propaganda anti-Semitic poster and he drags her away. Thinking that she has been caught by the Nazis, Isabelle steels herself and hopes that she can talk her way out of it. When dragged before a group of men, Isabelle learns that the men are all a part of the French resistance and that they would like her to join them. There is a man who prints pamphlets out of Paris and they need someone to deliver them. Utterly fearless as she is, Isabelle jumps at the chance and, before she knows it, she is part of the underground movement.
The Nightingale was a really brilliant read, including well-rounded but flawed characters, heart-wrenching scenes that left me on the edge of my seat, and left me with a sense of awe. The way in which the author depicted these characters made them seem believable and as if they were real people who had lived. The young, foolhardy, and brave Isabelle really blew my mind with all that she achieved and the manner in which she carried herself around the enemy. In her, I saw her fears, her flaws, and her hopes for romance during wartime. To put it succinctly, I found her to be absolutely spell-bounding.
Vianne, on the other hand, was a very interesting character with a great deal of depth. Towards the beginning of the book, I was not very fond of her because I found her to be shallow and somewhat mousy. However, as the story progressed, she transformed from this meek little creature to an individual who was forced to stand on her own two feet in the face of the enemy. She did what she could to keep her family afloat during a time of war and that made her seem brave, enduring. What I adored most about this story, outside of its fantastic portrayal of patriotism in a conquered country, was that it was about two sisters who were divided by past circumstances but that they came together. Isabelle and Vianne may never have gotten along, but in the end, they put differences aside to join together and that was beautiful. Needless to say, this book left me in tears. If I could give this 6 stars, I would. However, 5 stars will have to suffice for now!
Themes: [Spoiler Alert!]
My Race is Better than Your Race
For the Nazis in the story, nearly everything was about race. History tells us that the Nazi ideology spoke of a master race of Übermensch or “Supermen” who called themselves Aryan and thus the best of all races upon the earth. Many regarded those who were not Aryan as Untermensch or “Lesser men,” and that is something that is evident in The Nightingale. Amongst the perceived lesser races were the Slavs, the Jewish people, the French, the Gypsies, and just about anyone who didn’t fit in their vision of perfect humanity.
When a character by the name of Von Richter came on the scene, he exhibited attitudes that were characteristic of the Nazi ideology as well as the firm belief in eugenics. The way in which he would drink a full pot of coffee and would empty it into the sink rather than give it to Vianne was very telling of this mindset. Coffee was rare and for months, Vianne had subsisted on a poor substitute for coffee. On top of that, Von Richter compelled Vianne to cook for him and his men, most likely growing heavier while she and Sophie grew thinner by the day.
Sisters in Conflict
In Vianne and Isabelle, one finds that the two sisters cannot be anymore different. Vianne is older than Isabelle by several years and she is meek where her sister is audacious. It seems that the two sisters don’t exactly see eye-to-eye and Isabelle has unresolved anger towards Vianne for abandoning her at such a young age. This theme is revisited throughout the story and the two sisters never quite seem to get along. However, whenever things grow difficult in wartime, the two sisters band together and form a strong cohesive unit.
How to Save a Life
The Nightingale is all about the saving of life. An instance occurs in the book which causes Vianne to start saving the lives of Jewish children in Carriveau. As she witnesses the Jewish people being herded onto cattle carts and their terrible treatment by the whip-wielding Nazis, something snaps in her. Working with the Mother Superior of a nearby convent, she brings children to the convent orphanage to hide them and helps obtain false papers in order to save their lives. This is something that was a great risk in that era. To do something like this and be found out meant death: whether it involved being shot by a firing squad or being deported to a concentration camp.
If you like this, you may enjoy…
I recommend the 2001 film, Charlotte Gray, starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup. It’s about a young Scottish woman who agrees to travel to France with a top secret mission after her lover’s plane goes down there. It is suspenseful and reminds me very much of The Nightingale.