by Kristin Hannah
If sales of books about World War II are any indication, the war remains a subject of interest to a great many people even though it officially ended more than seventy years ago. The popularity of the book The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah ( St. Martin Press, 2015) supports this idea. As of June 19, 2016, The Nightingale, a story of two French sisters and their very different responses to World War II, has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for Hardcover Fiction for sixty-six weeks. The only book that has been on the Best Seller List for Fiction longer is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which has been on the list for 109 weeks, and is also a novel about World War II.
With so many books already written about World War II, why write another? Hannah answers this question at her website in an article called “Behind The Book.” She states that while she was doing research on World War II for a different book she came upon a story of a teenage Belgian woman who created a route out of Nazi territory into Spain for escaped Allied soldiers. In the website article Hannah explains that this information captivated her imagination. As she continued her research Hannah found more astounding stories of women who risked their lives, and even the lives of their children, in order to save others. The fictional stories of the two sisters in The Nightingale, Vianne Rossignol Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, are taken from the true stories of the brave women of the French resistance. “In war,” Hannah says, “women’s stories are all too often forgotten or overlooked… The Nightingale is a novel about those women and the daring, dangerous choices they made…”
The Nightingale is written in the form of a memory of an elderly American woman who is reminiscing about her past — a past that she has hidden from her only son. The cause of the woman’s need to review her past is a recurrence of cancer. This diagnosis convinces her that she has only a short period of time to share the truth of her storied past with her son. The account that emerges as the elderly woman recalls her young life is the chronicle of the traumatic changes that took place in France in the quiet, provincial lives of the Rossignol family as they were forced to enter the vast, destructive world of World War II. The narrative takes place on two levels: the intimate, personal workings of individual hearts, and the expansive, ruthless activities of the heartless Nazi regime.
The intimate story of The Nightingale revolves around Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol, sisters who are many years apart in age and opposites in temperament. The elder sister, Vianne, has a shy, dependent nature and stutters when under stress. Young Isabelle’s personality is defiant and fiery, and she says everything that comes to her mind. The death of their mother, the difference in their ages and temperaments and the estrangement from their father has caused a deep gap in the sisters’ relationship. Isabelle longs for the love and attention of her family, but neither her father nor Vianne can fill that need.
Isabelle goes to live with her sister and brother-in-law at one point in her childhood, but during Isabelle’s stay, Vianne experiences several miscarriages and is not emotionally able to care for her younger sister. Eventually Isabelle, feeling rejected by Vianne, coerces her father into allowing her to stay with him in his Paris apartment. The sisters never reconcile with each other following this separation, even after a healthy child, Sophie, is born to Vianne and her husband, Antoine. This disunity creates a very unsettled family connection and a lot of inner turmoil for both sisters, which complicates their lives in many ways as they are plunged into the long period of chaos caused by the Nazi invasion and occupation of France.
In due course the war machine of Germany forces its way into the troubled world of the Rossignol/Mauriac family. Vianne’s husband is sent off to serve in the French army, leaving Vianne alone to cope with the changes brought on by the war. True to form, Vianne tries to keep her little family safe by obeying all the rules imposed by the new Nazi/Vichy government. When Isabelle joins Vianne in her country home after Paris is occupied by the Nazis, conflict intensifies between the sisters. Isabelle cannot bear the thought that the French army has capitulated to the Nazis. She is angry at the Vichy government and resentful toward the Germans and doesn’t care who knows it. When Isabelle’s home, which is close to an airfield, is requisitioned by the Nazis and a Nazi officer is billeted there, Vianne knows she must make Isabelle curb her tongue or suffer the consequences. Vianne succeeds in making Isabelle restrain her angry comments only after she convinces her that it is her niece Sophie she is putting at risk with her outbursts. Not long after this Isabelle finds her way into the French Resistance, and moves away from Isabelle and Sophie.
From here the narrative splits in two, alternating between the story of Vianne’s struggle to keep herself, her daughter and close friends alive in the French countryside, and Isabelle’s career in the French Resistance as she goes deep into danger with her extraordinary exploits.
Kristin Hannah is intentional about writing The Nightingale from a woman’s perspective. She includes descriptions of Vianne’s pleasant appearance, lovely home, delicious cooking, appealing clothing and well-tended garden. She emphasizes Vianne’s maternal aspects, her nurturing heart and careful attention to children in every part of the story. Isabelle is also described by her striking appearance and well-chosen attire, by her diminutive size and her beautiful hair and skin. The drastic changes that Vianne and Isabelle undergo during the war years give the reader a way to measure the physical ruination that World War II brought to the lives of women who remained behind during the war. Hannah also includes the many emotional and character related changes that the women experience during the war, including the skill with which they handled dangerous events, the amazing courage they exhibited, and their strong will to survive.
Does The Nightingale hold its own with other World War II historical novels? Yes, I think so. There are some scenes in the book that are predictable, but there are also many unexpected changes in the plot and a very intriguing secret that is hidden until the final chapters.
The Nightingale is ultimately a tale about a family that is waging war with itself while a world war is being waged around them. Can the Rossignol family come together and recognize each others’ precious humanity in a world that is producing so much pain and inhumanity? Can any family succeed at this? The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah asks this question, and many other questions that are worth thinking about and discussing; for this reason The Nightingale would make a great book club choice.