Published by St. Martin's Press on February 3rd 2015
Genres: Contemporary Women, Fiction, Historical
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In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.
4.5 Stars – 4 for the overall book and 5 for the audiobook experience. A tear-jerker, several times over. Emotional historical fiction set in France, about two very different sisters and the often forgotten role of women during World War 2. The audiobook is nominated for a 2016 Audie Award in the Best Fiction and Best Female Narrator categories.
Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.
The Nightingale wasn’t on my “To Read” list, but I received a copy of the audiobook from the Ford Audiobook Club and decided to give it a shot. It is a long one, clocking in at 17 hours and 26 minutes. I wasn’t interested in the book at first because I thought it would be more of a romance. The romance-related scenes did end up being my least favorite parts, but they were few and far between. They definitely aren’t the first thing I remember when thinking about this book. This book is really about women’s role in the war, the stories that are not always told. Kristin Hannah was inspired to write this book after stumbling upon the story of Andrée de Jongh, a 19-year-old Belgian woman and member of the Belgian Resistance. De Jongh organized the Comet Line, a network of people who helped shot-down Allied Soldiers make the journey over the Pyrenees to safety in Spain.
Perhaps that’s why I find myself looking backward. The past has a clarity I can no longer see in the present.
The book opens in 1995, with a dying elderly woman examining the contents of her trunk. An old passport photo of a young woman named Juliette Gervais causes memories from a distant past to rush back to her. Though we return to this woman several times throughout the story, her identity is not revealed until the end. We are transported back in time to 1939 and we meet a pair of sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, with two very different personalities and two very different reactions to the impending war. Eighteen-year-old Isabelle resents her father and sister for essentially abandoning her after their mother’s death. She is rebellious and stubborn and desperately wants to fight for France and join the resistance. Vianne wants to lay low and thinks everything will blow over. She remembers the effect World War I had on her father and she is not anxious for a repeat. She also has her daughter Sophie to protect.
1940, the Nazis invade France. Paris falls to the Germans on June 14. An armistice agreement is signed on June 22, leaving large parts of France to the Germans. Vianne remains in her quiet, countryside home with her daughter and her husband is sent off to war. Isabelle is one of the thousands who flee Paris and after a long, dangerous journey she finds safety with Vianne. Soon after, a Nazi soldier is billeted to Vianne’s home. Unable to sit still any longer or keep her opinions to herself, Isabelle secretly runs off to join the resistance. As the Nazis gradually creep into their lives, both sisters are confronted with moral dilemmas that have no easy answers. Even the best choice at the time can have terrible consequences. Food and money quickly run out and as the tough choices mount, Vianne finds bravery she didn’t know she had. I felt so conflicted and sympathetic for all the characters. View Spoiler »Poor Vianne becomes somewhat of an outcast in her community because of her uneasy “friendship” with Captain Beck, a complicated man. I could totally understand her neighbors suspicions too. Everyone was just doing the best they could to survive. « Hide Spoiler
I know that grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.
I was also conflicted about my feelings for this book, which is why this review sat around as a draft for the past few months! Despite my five-star rating, I actually do agree with a majority of the criticisms: purple prose, melodramatic at times View Spoiler »(Dying in a lover’s arms upon his long-awaited arrival? Ugh! The writing during the first major death was over-the-top and didn’t ring true, detracting some from the emotional impact–but I was still sobbing.) « Hide Spoiler, the barrage of all-things-WW2 happening to one family, and so on. And you know what? I didn’t even care! I fell in love with the characters, I was completely absorbed in the story, and I was completely transported to a different time and place. Admittedly, it is easier for me to gloss over the above issues in an audiobook but I really did love experience of listening to this story. I thought the voice narrator Polly Stone sounded robotic at first, but it just took me twenty minutes to ease into her style. She did a wonderful job and she really brought the characters to life.
I am hesitant to call The Nightingale light, because terrible, heart-wrenching things happen. Just a warning for expectations sake, since it was being compared negatively against All the Light We Cannot See; it is slightly closer to Nicholas Sparks than Anthony Doerr! I did think back to AtLWCS in the scenes where people were fleeing from Paris as German bombers fly overhead and the parts about the French resistance, but that is where the overlap ends.
List of events that completely destroyed me: View Spoiler »Vianne/Rachel/the list, Sophie!, Ari left with Vianne, Isabelle and Vianne’s father’s sacrifice, the conclusion to Beck’s search, billeted soldier #2, Vianne’s husband difficult return, Daniel being picked up. « Hide Spoiler. The end is perfect!
What sacrifice would you make for your family or for future generations? What choices can you live with? I love books that let me get to know different people and make me understand their actions, whether they would be the actions I would take or not. It really made me look at myself and think about how I would react to certain situations. It is impossible to predict! I love Isabelle’s spirit, but I know I would be more of a Vianne. The Nightingale was one of those books that really surprised me and I am glad I got the chance to listen to it! I think the audiobook really enhanced the experience for me.
“Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”