Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale won the GoodReads choice for historical fiction. The description includes two words I find hard to resist: Paris and Sisters. Gimme.
The story is framed by the present as a son helps his terminally ill mother make the dreaded move into a nursing home. She’s neglected to share stories from her past with him. An invitation from Paris opens a door and at last it’s time.
Vianne enjoys one last beautifully normal day with her childhood sweetheart/husband and daughter at her ancestral home in the French countryside. She’ll hear no talk of Hitler’s war. The wall will hold them. They’ll never enter France. In a blink, her gentle husband is off to fight. France surrenders. Her younger sister Isabelle shows up starved and covered in other people’s blood, having evacuated Paris and walked for days with thousands of other refugees. A heartbeat later Germans occupy the town and a Nazi officer billets in her home.
Though change unfolds quick and dirty, Vianne is slow to realize how bad things are, let alone imagine how much worse they’ll get. Isabelle, on the other hand, is determined to contribute to the resistance in any way she can, and it’s not because she’s fallen in love with Gaetan, a communist committed to the resistance, while running from bombs.
Now is not the time for the sisters to repair their damaged relationship, but if not now perhaps they never will. After their mom died, their father, broken by both grief and the first war, left them under the care of another. Only a few years later, Vianne sent young Isabelle off to school as she attempted to start her own family. The distance between them serves Isabelle well as she begins distributing General de Gaulle’s messages, undetected.
Seeing the occupation through the eyes of the women left behind was a new perspective for me. Vianne learns what the Nazi’s are the hard way as she and her daughter nearly starve, stuff their clothes with newspaper for warmth and repeatedly watch their home get looted and their friends first forced to wear stars and soon after carted off to we know where. Before the war, her husband managed their finances and obligations while she taught school and gardened. Now their survival is all on her. I entered her chapters with dread and that was fitting.
Isabelle’s story line is much more exciting. She returns to Paris to play a bigger role in the resistance and hoping, as always, to have a relationship with her father. A pretty, charming courier flies under the Nazi’s first through the streets of Paris and then through the country as she helps guide fallen British and allied pilots out of Paris and over the Pyrenees Mountains to the consulate in Spain. Her code name is the Nightingale and an entire network of mostly women open their homes, risking and often sacrificing their lives to help.
The war’s escalation provides a solid framework for many historical novels. The Nightingale stands out for its tight focus on these two women and their very different but equally brave fighting spirits. Isabelle’s story alone was enough to hook me, but I loved the contrast and heart Vianne offered.
How far would you go is the question weighted by a broken family, regret, terror and guilt, on top of surviving on 800 calories a day and a desperate effort to not get gassed or shot in the face.
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.
Apparently, the book is based on resistance heroine Andrée De Jongh, a Belgian woman who created and led the 600-mile Comet line, an escape route through Nazi-occupied France, and personally guided more than 118 soldiers to freedom, as well as other women who played central roles in the resistance. Andrée De Jongh lived to be 91.
The ending irked one of my pet peeves, but I won’t say why so as not to spoil. Perhaps the author worried the book was too cheery otherwise? It felt like a chore in the beginning because you know what’s coming and are tempted by other novels that won’t take you to the Holocaust. I stuck with it because Isabelle’s character is clearly going to do something extraordinary despite what everyone thinks of her.
War is often told as a story about men fighting and dying. Andrée De Jongh’s life squashes that assumption. While not a favorite, I’m glad I read this.