I finally gave The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah a go, and I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.
The story follows two sisters, Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, during the Nazi occupation of France. Occupation isn’t an aspect of WWII I’ve seen explored a lot, perhaps because most of my exposure comes from American and British films as opposed to French, but after reading The Nightingale I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t explored it more heavily, because even day to day life in this setting is rife with dramatic tension. These people had to live with the enemy, not only in their communities, but often inside their own homes. What do you do to survive something like that? How do you protect the ones you love?
Vianne and Isabelle follow different paths as they try to navigate these questions, but what I appreciated is that Hannah doesn’t really judge one as better or worse, but shows the pros and cons for each. Vianne tries to keep her head down to maintain as normal and safe a life as she can, sometimes striking me as almost willfully naive, but I still understood her choices—she’s thinking of her daughter as much as herself. Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Isabelle is ready to fight back, making her easy to root for, but her actions sometimes come across as more reckless than brave. As the war wears on, time and experience shape each of these women, forcing them into tighter spots and harder choices, and I feel like Hannah did a good job in showing these characters grow over time.
The pacing of this book is a little slower at times, but I think that works in its favor, because it gives you a sense of how the war could move more slowly for those at home as opposed to in the trenches, where the struggle wasn’t about gaining ground but preserving rations, and where the enemy didn’t rush at you with their weapon drawn, but crept up all around you with talk of “order” and “cooperation.”
I’ve also seen complaints in other reviews about the author using American terms and measurements, and maybe for historical accuracy that’s worth pointing out but, in the midst of a story, that’s such a small thing to me. Honestly, my brain doesn’t register whether or not it was a cup or liter or whatever amount of an item; unless the exact measurement is relevant to the plot, all I pick up on is that they have said item, then I move on to what is actually happening in the scene.
All in all, I give The Nightingale 3.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a thoughtful and often sad story with believable, complex characters.