Family secrets. Romance. Nazis. What else could one ask for in a sweeping, epic novel set in France?
[For the record, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah has nothing to do with Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse who basically invented modern nursing — just in case you're as goofy as I am.] It's the story of two sisters during World War II France who, while struggling with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father, join the French resistance. It's an often brutal novel that explores themes of family obligation, patriotism, courage and redemption along the way.
I'm a bit of a World War II buff. My paternal grandfather fought in Germany as an artillery man, and my maternal grandfather drove skiff boats in the Pacific. I've seen the movies, read a lot of books and watched the miniseries. I know a lot about World War II.
[SPOILER ALERT — also, affiliate link alert. If you click on some of the links in this post, your purchase will go towards supporting Outdoor Book Club (which we're deeply grateful for).]
Except it turns out I didn't really know much about one really important aspect of the war — the German occupation of France. Before I read The Nightingale, the most I knew about the French in WWII was a particularly memorable line from The Simpson's. After reading this book, I feel like I know not only how the war affected French people as a whole, but specifically how it affected the women who were left behind when the men left to fight (and eventually got captured and thrown in prison camps).
Why I liked the book
As much as I complain about not having enough time to read long, sweeping historical novels, I love me an epic tale. This book had a lot going for it: Romance, intrigue, spies, Nazis and sassy women. I liked a lot of the complicated nature of many of the male characters as well.
It's worth mentioning that a lot of other reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon said they cried at this book — personally I'm not a big crier, but this did manage to tug at my heartstrings more than normal.
I found it fascinating how the author portrayed the lives of these French women: how they fought to survive without their men, what they did to try and save others who were less fortunate, how they
compromised in order to make things easier for their children. Reading this book, I asked myself the same question over and over again: what would I do in the same situation? Which of course makes it a great pick for book clubs.
There's also a nice little twist that runs through the story — I won't give it away, but I thought it was well-executed. These days it can be hard to really pull of plot twists well (we're all so jaded), but Hannah manages to do it in The Nightingale.
What I didn't like
There weren't a lot of cons to this book. I sometimes wished the author had added the same level of complexity to the female protagonists as she did to some of the male characters (especially to the younger sister, who I felt often came across as a sort of cartoon-character tomboy). The writing overall flowed, though several members of my book club couldn't help compare the writing to All the Light We Cannot See, another book set during WWII, and found it lacking (though they did admit the writing in the latter was superb and would be hard for anyone to beat).
The Nightingale manages to combine family dynamics, history, romance and tragedy in a way that feels deeply meaningful yet is still a page-turning thriller (at parts). It offers plenty of thorny issues to discuss and reflect on as a book discussion pick, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid, emotional novel that centers around family, history and hard choices.
Did you read the book? I'm interested to know what you thought. Leave your comments about The Nightengale in the comments below.
Jill Hinton Wolfe