I stayed up late to finish The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I couldn’t put the book down until I knew the ending and now I can’t stop thinking about this phenomenal book. I’m in awe of the range of Kristin Hannah’s storytelling with her vivid descriptions. This is a powerful, beautiful and heartbreaking read.
Sometimes when I read fiction, I remind myself that whatever tragedy happens in the book, it’s still fiction. But while The Nightingale is a fictional description, it’s still based on a very real, horrible war. And Kristin Hannah doesn’t shy away from descriptions of the hellish war and its devastating impact.
The story revolves around two sisters who are vastly different: Vianne and Isabelle. They are estranged from each other and both are on very divergent paths. Vianne is a loving wife and mother who works as a school teacher and always follows the rules. Isabelle is a rebellious eighteen-year-old who feels she must join the French resistance against the Germans. While they’re both as different as can be, they both take their own active role in resisting the Nazis.
Let’s take a closer look at each sister:
Isabelle is steadfast in her beliefs and she would not yield for anyone. She’s also dealing with her internal struggle of abandonment, first by her father who left the girls behind after their mother died and then with Vianne who found stability with her husband and sent Isabelle away to boarding school.
Isabelle is a beautiful, young woman, which means that men underestimate her time and time again. In fact, when she takes on the biggest risk of her life — guiding airman out of France — she’s able to use her gender and looks to her advantage. No one expects a young woman to actually become a resistance fighter. People doubt a women’s ability to take on a daring mission, which in turns, allows Isabelle to evade any suspicion. She adopts the codename the nightingale and the enemies assume the codename is for a man.
Isabelle is dynamic, courageous and so strong and I rooted for her every step of the way. And in fact, Hannah says that she based Isabelle on a real person: a 19-year-old Belgium woman who help create an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France. Incredible.
While Isabelle’s story, for the most part, is an epic adventure, Vianne’s is consistent terror. After the capture of her husband, Nazis take over her town. Her number one priority is protecting her daughter Sophie at all costs.
When a Nazi officer moves into her home (Captain Beck), I feared what was going to happen to her. However, he is respectful to her and their relationship took a different turn than I expected, almost romantic at times. She lives passively with him, even when he forces her to reveal the names of Jewish and Communist teachers at her school, which includes her best friend next door.
I was frustrated with Vianne’s complicity but also felt for her as she was in an impossible situation. Vianne does find her inner strength (literally) and eventually takes the big role of forging false identity papers for Jewish children so they can be kept safe. Vianne found her inner hero after all but she had to go through some absolute horrors to achieve it.
Society expectations (and misperceptions) of women is a big theme of the novel. Other major themes include the bond and messiness of sisterhood, love and sacrifice, the resilience of the human nature and the fragility of life. I question character choices, I cheered when they succeeded, I felt devastated when they didn’t — I grew attached to these characters.
Is The Nightingale a good book club book? Absolutely.
There is so much to dissect with this novel. I’ll have my book club questions up soon and you might need two sessions dedicated to this one.
The Nightingale is an important read so make sure and add this to your TBR list.