It’s been a long time since I’ve been as moved by a book as I am by THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah. I devoured it in two days. It will be hard to find a better novel this year. And here it is only the first of the year. I call this an OMG! read.
Beginning in 1995 in Oregon, we meet an old woman looking at the end of her life. She’s being escorted to an assisted living home by her son Julien, and has just sold her home of fifty years. It is her choice as she does not wish to burden her son with her worsening health. After all, the cancer has returned, and this time she knows it’s here to stay.
The unnamed old woman is thinking back, about the war and her past, about the people she lost. “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.”
The second chapter of this amazing novel takes us back to France. It’s August 1939. Viann Mauriac is enjoying a beautiful summer morning in her yard in the Loire Valley. She’s listening to the sweet laughter of her lovely young daughter and looking forward to spending the day with her husband Antoine, the love of her life, the only man she’s ever loved. They live about a mile outside the small town of Carriveau on her small family farm, Le Jardin. What a charmed life. Until Antoine is called to war. And then everything changes, forever.
In chapter four we meet Isabelle Rossignol, Viann’s sister. And we hear of their earlier life with their widowed father; how he sent them away after the death of his wife, unable to cope with two young children and their mother gone. And we find he was ruined even before the loss of his wife, by the Great War. We discover how rebellious Isabelle has become as a young woman, having been expelled from numerous convent schools.
This novel kept me guessing, tossed me around, forced me to think, and gave me yet another perspective into World War Two. The intense, pristine attention to detail that Hannah uses makes this novel one of the best I’ve read about the war. Her story-telling is superb. Her sense of place reins tall.
Isabelle is sent home to her father once again after being expelled from school. This time the war is upon then in France, and her father sends her south of Paris, to be with her sister Viann who is alone with a small child during the war. However, Viann has an unexpected and unwanted German officer billeted in her home. And the barbed tongue of Isabelle can not be quieted. Her antipathy for the Germans is bound to cause trouble for her sister and her niece. Isabelle leaves Le Jardin to join the resistance. And this is where this story becomes a page-turner! It is utterly unputdownable at this point.
I have read about the Holocaust many times. Hannah shows us how horrendous it was to wait in unending queys for hours on end for whatever may or may not be available with ration cards. Sometimes it would be a partial loaf of stale bread, or a ham hock sans meat, or an iota of cooking oil. The Nazis used starvation and intimidation to break the souls of the French people. As I was reading this I could not help but wonder how I would have done.
Two sisters, both desperate to survive and be free once again, both dealing with horrific living conditions and yet both working for the cause in ways of their own. This is the “women’s war,” what goes on behind the battle fields, the part of war we do not always hear of; mostly unspeakable happenings that are best kept undercover.
So many secrets, so much horror. So much guilt. So many awful no-win choices to have to make. These are the challenges of war.
Toward the end of the novel Hannah takes us to the Nazi death camps. And it is unbelievable as it always is when written about. The scenes in these camps are some of the most realistic and heartbreaking I’ve ever read of. And I’ve read many.
So who is The Nightingale? And what is The Nightingale? The Nightingale was a young woman who dared to put her own life at risk over and over again as she lead small groups of downed pilots out of occupied France and over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain to freedom.
I read my review copy on a digital device. But I will be bringing a copy of this book to my lectures this season. I am so grateful to Kristin Hannah for writing this book.
I must thank St. Martin’s press for sending me a lovely review copy of THE NIGHTINGALE. I am already hearing oohs and aahs from my book clubs. This one is a sure hit!