Book Review: The Nightingale

According to the consensus of my Instagram followers (mosty women, many who are big into books), I’m the last person on planet earth to read The Nightingale.

Still I know there are many people who will watch the forthcoming film based on the novel by Kristin Hannah without ever reading the book, so I wanted to share my thoughts.

I first discovered Hannah’s writing through her book The Great Alone, which I devoured in about a week. After reading most of The Nightingale in two sittings, I was thrilled to learn both books will become movies in the near future, with the latter due for release later this year and starring the Fanning Sisters (!!!).

I’m a fan of reading the book before watching the movie; if you are, too, this review is for you!

Inspired by the real women of the French Resistance who hid Jewish children from Nazi soldiers, the Nightingale follows the lives of two estranged sisters navigating their roles as women during WWII: Isabelle, a free-thinking, impetuous and impulsive girl with a deep desire to be accepted and loved, and Vianne, the rule-following older sister who fears abandonment even as her husband has just been sent off to war. German officers occupy their town, and two higher-ups billet in Vianne’s home.

The sisters are faced with impossibly hard choices that will cause readers to question their own definitions of right and wrong. I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but since it’s historical fiction from WWII you can imagine the incomprehensible situations these sisters find themselves in as they seek, in their own ways, to help people persecuted by the Nazi’s get to safety.

I loved reading this book and holding it in my hands, but I imagine it would be a highly entertaining audiobook listen as well.

What’d I love?

  1. The cinematic storytelling. While it’s true that Kristin Hannah’s work has been accused of being overly-sentimental, I found this book to be the perfect balance of heart-searing sentiment and page-turning story. “Show, don’t tell” is clearly a principle that is alive and well in Hannah’s writing, and I appreciate that.
  2. The Nightingale takes us to 1940’s Paris and the surrounding French countryside between the Great Wars — two beautiful places I have never been — then walks us through the hard and harrowing journey of the women who lived through their own wars while the men were away, first to fight the Germans and then as prisoners of war. This leads me to an embarassing admission, and my third point–
  3. I hadn’t considered the plight of the women left behind to fend for themselves during WWII. Despite my husband’s German grandmother sharing her stories of being a young girl in Germany when Hitler rose to power, I had never given much thought to how the atrocities of WWII played out for the women living in the countries Germany conquered. It was horrible. I learned so much (and did a lot of googling while reading, based on what I learned).
  4. Through this book I was reminded of a middle school history lesson I somehow forgot as an adult: this was a slow-spreading evil, and it was a long road from persecution to the extermination that millions of people experienced at the hands of the SS and Wehrmacht during WWII. It started with damaging their reputations and credibility, then stealing their businesses, firing them from their jobs, then rationing them to the brink of starvation, separating the suspected communists, the mentally unstable, and the gays, and forcing the Jews to wear yellow stars to identify and “other” them. All of that took years, and took place before anyone was rounded up and shipped to concentration camps where millions lost their lives. All of those red flags….all of that nationalism and racism and fear of the other contributed to the Final Solution. It didn’t happen overnight. And many many “good people” were willfully complicit as collaborators in order for that to take place.
  5. The main characters in this book could not be more different. Still, they share a truth that becomes a central theme to this book: to be loved, and to be strong in heart, means one can endure even the most unimaginably hard circumstances. Which brings me to note what I enjoyed the most about both Kristin Hannah’s books I’ve read (so far)–
  6. Hannah never portrays her characters as victims. People contain multitudes, and they can be empathetic and evil — sometimes in the same breath. Under extreme duress, the women in this book do whatever is necessary to survive and keep their families safe. It’s heartbreaking, admirable, and all-consuming. It’s also relatable.

Chances are good that I’ll never live through anything like what the characters in this book survived (God willing — we are on the brink of a civil war in the USA, which is disheartening to say the least). But if I do, I’ll pray for the intenstinal fortitude to stand strong in my conviction — which is what ultimately both sisters in The Nightingale did, each in their own way.

If you like stories that wear their heart on their sleeve, and you have a bent toward reading historical fiction — you would love The Nightingale.

And if you’ve read it, be sure to leave a comment here with your main takeaways!

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