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The Nightingale Book Review

Book Reviews by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah; St. Martin’s Press; February 2015; 448 pp; $27.99 

Author Kristin Hannah has written more than twenty novels, most of them contemporary women’s fiction. After hearing about and then researching the story of a young Belgian woman who created an escape route out of France during World War II, Hannah was inspired to write her newest novel “The Nightingale,” which is historical fiction at its best. 

Set mostly in France during World War II, the book features two main characters, Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac, who are sisters but very different. It is 1939 and Vianne, the older sister, is married and watches her husband leave her and their young daughter to fight the Germans. Isabelle, a headstrong eighteen-year-old who has been expelled from yet another finishing school, has moved in with Vianne because their father, a widower, is unwilling to let Isabelle live with him in Paris. 

Soon the Nazis invade France and move into the sisters’ quiet village of Carriveau. A German captain chooses Vianne’s home on the outskirts of town for his housing; the women have no choice but to allow him to move in. When this happens, Vianne’s reaction is to do whatever she can to keep her daughter and herself out of harm’s way, trying not to cause trouble with the German officer. Isabelle, however, has a difficult time following the new rules imposed on them. She has met a partisan who informs her of the efforts of the French Resistance; Isabelle decides to join the cause in Paris, partly because she feels she has to act and but also because she has fallen in love with the partisan. 

“The Nightingale” moves back and forth between the two sisters’ lives and the challenges they face with the Nazi occupation. The novel illustrates how the Nazis very gradually worked to annihilate the Jews. Vianne’s best friend and neighbor is Jewish; Vianne will face numerous painful moral predicaments concerning her friend. Meanwhile, Isabelle is risking her life to help downed Allied airmen to escape from France. The sisters’ relationship with their father is another important aspect of the book as is Isabelle’s love for the partisan who first informed her of the Resistance. Hannah’s character development and attention to historical details are excellent. Readers will sense the despair, starvation and hopelessness experienced by both women.  

Interestingly, the novel’s first chapter takes place in 1995 and is written in first-person narrative by an unidentified elderly woman who is living in Oregon. Her opening line is a meaningful quote: “If I have learned anything 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.” Occasionally, chapters switch to this woman’s narrative but she remains unnamed until the last chapter. Readers are aware that the narrator is one of the sisters, but it’s never clear until the end which one is speaking. 

Hannah describes her book as a tale about “those women and the daring, dangerous choices they made to save their children and their way of life.” This epic novel, at times, tough reading; the inhumanity of war is clearly illuminated throughout the book. It is, however, a stirring, beautifully written story that will engage readers from start to finish.

the nightingale