The Nightingale—A Novel by Kristin Hannah is a weighty 564 pages. The cover has shades of blue and grey with the embossed golden image of a bird in a tree- delicate, feminine, appealing. The story is not delicate; however, it is a dark surprise, and one worth reading, even re-reading.
A bit of personal honesty is in order—going in, I was prepared to dislike this book. I do not read romantic based historical fiction. I told myself that Hannah was a romantic author, very popular, but still, romance. NOPE, nope, not for me. Not my cup of tea.
Fate intervened. My on-line book club chose Hannah for the Author of the Month selection. Despite moaning and muttering, I bought the book, read the book, and here we are.
Let me get it out now, I was wrong about Hannah and wrong about The Nightingale. This novel is much more than a delicate cover.
The novel is set during the WWII Nazi occupation of France. Hannah weaves her story while detailing the brutal German oppression and murder of the French people, the cruel dislocation of French Jews and other targeted groups, and the incredible bravery of the members of the French Resistance.
The writing is sparse; there are no literary flourishes — it fits the story. The novel evolves around the lives of two sisters—Vianne (Rossignol) Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, at odds with one another since early childhood. Interweaving the present with the past, and the past into the present, the sisters’ experiences become a single thread of unmet expectations and misunderstandings, that in the end, show an unrelenting depth of love and respect between them.
The reader learns that, when they were very young, their mother suddenly died. Ignored by their grieving father, the girls raised themselves. Years of parental indifference caused the girls to become emotionally distanced, then resentful towards each other. The older sister, Vianne Rossignol (Mauriac), becomes pregnant, escaping Paris through marriage and moving to the French countryside and far away from her sister.
The younger daughter, Isabelle Rossignol, an unabashed rebel, continues acting out, and as she is dismissed from one convent school to the next, the sisters become even further estranged. Vianne settles into motherhood and country life, while Isabelle continues her ever increasing wild behavior in Paris.
Hannah forces the reader to watch as the Nazis enter Paris and expel French Jews from their homes and herd them into railway boxcars. The reader walks the French countryside alongside hundreds of French citizens while above, German pilots indiscriminately release bombs on the crowds below. Just as suddenly, the reader stands by as messages are secreted to members of the French Resistance. The reader watches as downed American and British pilots are guided in the freezing cold while attempting to avoid roving German patrols, through the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.
As the novel progresses, each sister, unknown to the other in their own way, secretly fights the Nazi occupation. One sister becomes an undercover member of the French Resistance and the guide known as The Nightingale. The Nightingale is the one who leads downed American and British pilots over the Pyrenees mountains to safety. The sisters’ father makes a fateful and touching reappearance and with a surprising twist (no spoilers here).
Hannah’s research is faultless. The Nightingale successfully mirrors the turbulence of war through the lens of a French family who deeply love France and one another. The deprivations, hunger, fear, and reactions are visceral. Hannah forces the reader to remember the atrocities of WWII, and cautions us to never forget this part of our history—we must all ensure that it can never happen again. We cannot become complacent; we cannot take our freedoms for granted.
My mother once told me that a sign of maturity is admitting when you are wrong, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this book. Find a copy of The Nightingale, read it, and share it with other like-minded reading friends, and spread the message: we must never forget.
Hannah, Kristin. The Nightingale: A Novel. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
Photo of Novel courtesy of Amazon. Com
Photo of Nazi in Paris. Wikimedia Commons : -(Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png German Nazi officers parading in the deserted Foch avenue, Paris, France (1940). Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png)
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.