March is Women’s History Month, as if women’s history could all fit into one month – sheesh. Still, it seems fitting to feature bestselling and award-winning author Kristin Hannah’s new historical thriller, The Nightingale, during this month. It was inspired by real women, quiet yet phenomenally brave heroines during World War II, and asks an age-old question, “What would you do?” The war is seen through the eyes of two very different sisters in France, sisters at odds with each other in a family torn apart by personal tragedy before the war even begins. It is a thriller, a story about all kinds of relationships, and a look at how people’s beliefs and values are tested when their lives go beyond what they believe is humanly possible. What would you do to survive? What would you risk to preserve what you hold dear? See if it sounds like a novel you’d like to read and, if so, be sure to enter our giveaway to win a copy!
“If I have learned one thing in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
Viann and her much younger sister Isabelle could not be more different. Ever since their mother died, Viann has had to be the responsible one, especially since their father could not cope with either his wife’s death or raising two daughters. It took no time for him to ship them off to be raised by someone else, wiping his hands of the whole messy business. It deeply hurt Viann to be abandoned like that so soon after losing her mother, and to believe their father didn’t love them, but she buried her feelings and got on with the business of growing up as best she could.
Isabelle, on the other hand, has always been the rebel. She rebelled against their father abandoning them, against doing anything Viann asked of her, against the woman charged with raising them, and then against authority in every boarding school she attended. Isabelle chaffed at the injustice of how the world treated her and never stopped letting everyone around her know about it. That led to her being expelled from one school after another. And, sadly, she never stopped trying to get her aloof father to accept and love her no matter how many times he rejected her. Deep inside she knew he was never going to change but she couldn’t seem to help herself.
By1939, Viann has been married to her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, for several years and is living in Carriveau. She has a life she loves in this small village, a stable life which includes teaching in the local school and her small daughter, Sophie. Her best friend lives next door. Life is good and she intends to keep it that way.
When Antoine leaves with many of the village’s men to go to the Front, she and everyone in the village optimistically believe it will be a quick fight with nothing to worry about. They are certain the Germans will be easily thwarted and turned back from France’s borders, and that their beloved husbands will be home quickly. They’re very wrong on all counts.
Isabelle, at age eighteen, has just been sent back to her father from yet another school. She has a much darker view of what is happening with the Germans than her sister. When her father forbids her to stay in Paris with him and sends her off to stay with her sister in remote Carriveau, Isabelle feels rejected yet again, not realizing her father is trying to save her from what he believes will happen to Paris if the Germans can’t be turned back. It is only during her flight from Paris that she begins to see the horrors of what the Germans are actually doing to the French people, horrors that no one who isn’t on that road could imagine.
She has the good fortune to meet a young ex-con turned resistance fighter, Gäetan, along the way and his survival skills save this naïve young woman from meeting the fate so many others have. Of course she falls instantly in love with him and wants to join him in becoming a resistance fighter. How romantic and adventurous that sounds to this teenage rebel. When he steals quietly away from her, after getting her safely to her sister, she feels completely betrayed.
And so the two sisters, who are opposites in almost every way, find themselves thrown together in the middle of the German invasion: Viann, a naïve optimist who is scared of her own shadow and is certain the only way to survive is to keep her head down and her mouth shut; and Isabelle, a naive pessimist who rails against everything and couldn’t keep her mouth shut if her life depended on it – and it often does. Both sisters may be naïve to some extent but they each also have a realistic streak; however, how they deal with that realism is a direct reflection of who they are.
“Viann closed her eyes and thought. Hurry home, Antoine.
It was all she allowed herself, just that one small plea. How would she handle all of this – war, and Captain Beck, and Isabelle – alone?
She wanted to daydream, pretend that her world was upright instead of fallen on its side; that the closed guest room door meant nothing, that Sophie had slept with Viann last night because they’d fallen asleep reading, that Antoine was outside on this dewy dawn morning chopping wood for a winter that was still months away. Soon he would come in and say, Well, I am off to a day of delivering mail. Perhaps he would tell her of his latest postmark – a letter from Africa or America – and he would spin her a romantically imagined tale to go along with it.”
“This could not be her [Isabelle’s] life. Trapped in a house with a Nazi in a town that had given up without a whimper of protest. Viann was not alone in her desire to pretend that France had neither surrendered nor been conquered. In town, the shopkeepers and bistro owners smiled at the Germans and poured them champagne and sold them the best cuts of meat. The villagers, peasants mostly, shrugged and went on with life. Oh, they muttered disapprovingly and shook their heads and gave out wrong directions when asked, but beyond those small rebellions, there was nothing. No wonder the German soldiers were swollen with arrogance. They had taken over this town without a fight. Hell, they had done the same thing all over France.”
It takes almost no time for Isabelle to find the local resistance group in Carriveau and begin to do work for them. She does this despite a German officer being billeted in Viann’s home. She does this not really admitting to herself that, if she is caught, it could mean the deaths of not just her but her sister and niece as well. Yes, she’s reckless but she believes desperate times call for desperate measures.
Viann spends much of her time being terrified and trying to find more subtle ways to survive. She has always depended on her husband for survival and comes to depend on the German officer living with them. She fears him but she also is grateful for his kindnesses and convinces herself that he is not a bad man but just caught in the same untenable circumstances as the villagers. It takes much longer and much harsher consequences before she fully comprehends just how untenable her life has become.
Two young women who have always approached life very differently face situations that will test their strength, determination, and their ground-of-being values. How will they survive and how can they possibly make a difference against such overwhelming odds?
I could relate to Isabelle a bit too easily, having been a “The Emperor Has No Clothes” person all my life. The author draws her fully, warts and all, and the reader is all too aware when she makes missteps while still admiring the courage she exhibits in the face of overwhelming odds. Viann’s personality for me was a bit more frustrating because she had an ostrich mentality that I see a lot of right now in the U.S. It was as if she believed she could prevent anything bad from happening just by believing it wasn’t, despite all evidence to the contrary. Two sisters with such opposite personalities create a lot of tension in this novel, balancing each other out in a very interesting way. They each show enormous courage, given who they are. We all have a breaking point, when we say “No more!” Each of them not only finds theirs but makes the only choice they can, given who they are. And those choices make for one hell of a read!
Kristin Hannah was inspired to write The Nightingale by real women who stood up and did amazing things during World War II. I’ve included a video clip below of her talking about that. Her research into those women’s lives added depth to an already amazing read. World War II, like all wars, was not just about men going off to fight. Women everywhere quietly, and sometimes not quietly at all, also fought their own battles – battles to save as much as they could. Those stories also need to be told and I applaud Ms. Hannah for telling this one. The Nightingale is by turns awe-inspiring, beautiful, and heartbreaking, and it celebrates the hidden steel core inside every woman – a core strength that sometimes surprises even us. It was literally a novel I could not put down and I recommend it to anyone who likes historical novels or women’s fiction.
Can’t wait to read it?
The Nightingale was published on February 3, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Download it and you can have it to read right now!
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah!
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