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Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (4/5)

30 Apr

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m a bit ‘done’ with World War II novels. I think they’re overdone in the last few years. That’s not to say they’re not amazing, but I think after Sarah’s Key, Life After Life, All the Light We Cannot See, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Book Thief, etc., I could use a break from the setting. Especially those set in Europe. I adored most of these books, don’t get me wrong. I’m just looking for something fresh and new in Historical Fiction. This is why I went into The Nightingale very skeptical. It was going to have to be a stand-out novel to really blow me away. And it was very good. I think if I’d read it before these others, I would have loved it to death. It’s just a timing thing.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

I kept waiting for something completely original to come, something that would surprise me and knock me off of my feet. It didn’t happen to me which is why I couldn’t give this book five stars. However, it was very good. I loved the character development, the changing points of view, and the breadth of coverage of historical facts. With the two sisters, we see two very different sides of a war and how someone can survive a war. I loved how much they overlapped and came to be like one another. I thought Hannah set up her plot beautifully and moved it along at a good pace. For such a long book, it never dragged. Like I’ve said, it only suffered to me because it’s one in a long line of WWII novels.

I thought Vianne and Isabelle were great protagonists to show the war unfold. I also liked that their losses were real and painful. Losing a friend, neighbor, colleague, or family member doesn’t happen slowly in war: it happens all at once. Decisions have to be made suddenly even when they’re difficult. I thought these women were strong but realistically so. I loved Isabelle and her determination to help. I loved Vianne and her determination to protect. This book gave two wonderful role models and showed how it felt to be in an occupied country. It was well researched and a joy to read.

I related better to Isabelle than Vianne and I liked her better because of that. I don’t have children, or I may have related to Vianne better. Isabelle was younger than me when the war started and I was able to remember my first love and convictions I felt (and still feel) to do what’s right. She didn’t have anyone holding her back and she came across as brave and strong and I respected her. I would have been terrified to do what she did and I can only hope I’d have the same determination and bravery.

It’s hard to imagine living at a time when so many freedoms were stripped of people. I’ve never felt it to the same extreme as the people of occupied France. Things they would have never considered (murder, rape, human trafficking, giving children to strangers) became necessary. It’s hard to fathom such desperation in modern America.

Kristin Hannah
Image via USA Today

I was intrigued by Isabelle establishing herself in the underground efforts. It was interesting to see her being vetted and only slowly being given responsibilities as they grew to trust her. Being inside her head, we wanted to scream at these people that they could trust Isabelle, but they had no way of knowing that and it’s a credit to Hannah’s writing that the slow process of her coming into the fold was worth the wait.

The scene with the dead airman was my least favorite. I felt it turned the plot in a dark direction when it was already going to end up somewhere terrible. Putting a rift between Vianne and Isabelle didn’t add anything to me. Things would have played out the same way without it in my opinion. I think bringing in von Richter was a good way to move the plot but I think it could have been done without a fight between the sisters.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Polly Stone. She did an amazing job. She did French accents and German accents for the characters that weren’t distracting and added to the storytelling. She put great drama into her voice and built up suspenseful moments and languished in happy ones. I listened to her reading of Sarah’s Key as well and I hope she continues to narrate, but possibly something that’s not WWII fiction set in France.

Family creates a bond that’s hard to break. Even though the sisters did not get along growing up and their lives have been lived separately, their bond couldn’t be broken. Even though their father ignored them and pushed them away for years, he was there when they needed him. A family is tested in war but it can be tested in other situations as well. It’s hard to break that bond and I’ve seen times when it has been shattered. I wonder if that would happen if the bond was tested as much as a war can test a family. I bet there would be more reconciliations.

Writer’s Takeaway:  Hannah’s pacing is incredible. With such a long book, I was afraid of downtime and slow parts of the plot. I didn’t get any. There were tense moments peppered throughout that kept the plot moving at a blistering pace for such a long book. Having a setting that lent itself to so much drama and action helped a lot. The conflict inherent in the setting was great and a good pick for any book.

I enjoyed this book and I wish I’d read it before so many of the other WWII titles I’ve read. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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