Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

@backpackingbookworm

Despite the WWII genre being heavily saturated, there are a few noteworthy books that stand out from the crowd because of their sheer authenticity and incredible storytelling – The Nightingale is one such novel.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published on: 3 February 2015
Pages: 440 (hardcover)
Published by: St. Martin’s Press

A beautiful, thought-provoking, sob-inducing novel

The novel centres around two sisters: young, stubborn, and rebellious, Isabelle and mature, sensible Vianne, who has a family and a daughter to protect at all costs. The novel spans from 1939 through to 1945 following each sister’s reaction to Germany’s invasion and how they survive the brutal Nazi occupation.

Isabelle, code-named the nightingale, refuses to sit by and watch France surrender to the Germans. She joins the underground rebellion, committed to saving stranded airmen and helping them return home. Her missions are dangerous and filled with undeniable risk, as she crosses the Pyrenees countless times under cover of darkness, in all conditions.

With her husband sent to war, Vianne remains in Carriveau with her daughter and tries to keep things running as normal as possible, until a Nazi stations himself in Vianne’s home. Over time, Carriveau suffers at the hands of the Nazi’s and Vianne, terrified of putting her daughter at risk, must make some impossible choices if she wants to save innocent lives.

Worthy of the hype

I knew I would love The Nightingale, based on how much others adore it and my love for books set during WWII. That said, I was still a little nervous going in but I’m relieved to say that it met and exceeded all expectations.

The Nightingale was one of the most atmospherical novels I have ever read. Every single moment was brought to life by Hannah’s incredible use of language and description. No small detail was left out, and I truly felt like I knew the characters intimately and was experiencing the war alongside them. I often use the word raw to describe similar books, but that doesn’t do this story justice. My emotions were all over the place – love, betrayal, anger, frustration, distress, horror, dread, injustice… I never cry at books, but I had tears in my eyes throughout – that, to me, is the sign of incredible writing.

I loved reading from the perspective of the women who endured and suffered during the war – this is something I have not read about previously and it made for a unique and refreshing insight. Even more so, the fact that it was based in France – my history in this period is formed from the books I’ve read, and most have been based in Germany/Poland/England. I loved seeing two sides – the rebellion with Isabelle at the forefront and the pure instictual survival coupled with the determination to protect her children that Vianne posessed. Overall, this book contained everything I look for in a five-star read and I can’t wait to read Hannah’s back catalogue!

Rating breakdown
Plot/narrative – 5
Writing style/readability – 4.8
Characters – 4.9
Diverse themes – 4.8
Ending – 5
Overall – 4.9

Discussion questions

I absolutely love when a book comes with discussion questions – I usually just chat with myself (one-woman book club over here), but I thought I’d share my answers on my blog for a change. I took these from Kristin Hannah’s website if you want to check them out.

Note: spoilers ahead.

1. The Nightingale opens with an intriguing statement that lays out one of the major themes of the book: “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.” What do you think the narrator means by this? Is love the ideal and war the reality? How does war change the way these characters love? How does love influence their actions in the war?

From my interpretation, love for the narrator meant security and was an expectation of lifelong happiness. But when the war hit, she had to search deep within herself to uncover this resilient and hardened woman. A woman forced to make decisions she could never have imagined being faced with.

I think the parallels between Isabelle and Vianne are reflected in that comparison – Isabelle was the lover, and Vianne was the realist. Isabelle refused to give up hope that love could be lost. Vianne focused all her love on her daughter, refusing to share that love among neighbours, Isabelle, or her father until the war forced her to look beyond her household. Isabelle chose to fight, I think at first in a romanticised way, but then for love. Her love for Gaëtan allowed her to imagine a life after the war, and that kept her fighting. Love was never far from her mind, even in the most toiling and treacherous of times. Even for Vianne – she didn’t love Antoine in the same way when he returned from war, but they learned to love each other in a new way, thanks to the baby.

2. Take a moment to talk about the narrative structure of The Nightingale. Why do you think Kristin Hannah chose to keep the narrator’s identity a secret in the beginning and end of the novel? Were you surprised by who it turned out to be? Did you go back and reread the beginning of the novel once you finished? Were you satisfied when you discovered who was narrating the novel?

Keeping the narrator’s identity a secret was a good twist. I (like many), thought it was Isabelle, though I knew there was a chance it could be Vianne. Whichever sister, I assumed they had made peace with their father, as the son was named after him. I wished it could have been Isabelle as I wanted her to have that long, promising life but unfortunately, life doesn’t always turn out the way you hope, and I appreciate when authors acknowledge that. It was a relief to see that Vianne had made peace with her illegitimate child who was innocent in his creation. I was also thrilled that she could return to Paris to honour her sister.

3. Many characters chose to construct a secret identity in The Nightingale. How did pretending to be someone else determine each character’s fate, for better or worse? And what about those who had no choice, like Ari and Julien?

I think Isabelle’s secret identity allowed her to play a character she’d always wanted to portray – a strong, female leader, determined to help the resistance and make a difference. It would have given her strength and determination to carry on, even in times of despair. But, you could also tell she didn’t want to lose her real identity, and she was always unsure whether or not she should trust certain people with her real name. On the train to the concentration camp when she revealed herself, it was as if she knew Juliette was no longer someone she needed to be. She wanted to be Isabelle again while she still had the chance.

Poor Ari, I truly felt for him. He must have been so confused as a child, changing from Ari to Daniel then back to Ari, being shipped from pillar to post. His fate was better in some cases and worse in others. His new identity allowed him to remain with Vianne. But when his true identity was discovered, he was taken from Vianne to live with family in America.

4. The sisters Isabelle and Vianne respond to the war in very different ways. Isabelle reacts with anger and defiance, risking her life to join the resistance against Nazi occupation. Vianne proceeds with caution and fear, avoiding conflicts for the sake of her children. Who do you admire—or relate to, or sympathize with—more, Vianne or Isabelle?

I admired Isabelle for her strength, bravery, and sheer disregard of the rules, but I also found her obstinate and oblivious in the beginning, thinking she didn’t have the maturity to understand the risks involved. I also admired Vianne for putting her children first – she hated accepting the Nazi’s into her village, her home, her life, but she continued to put her children first to protect them. As a mother, that instinct never left her in the way that their father’s had when he returned from war. On the one hand, I related to Isabelle’s fury and passion. On the other, I could definitely understand why Vianne made the choices she did to protect her family.

5. The book captures many of the era’s attitudes about men and women. Isabelle, for example, is told that women do not go to war. Vianne is confused by her new wartime role as provider. Their father, Julien, is cold and distant, unwilling to fulfil his parental duties after his wife dies. Have gender roles changed much since World War II? Have women always been strong in the face of adversity, but not recognised for their efforts? Vianne says that “men tell stories…women get on with it.” Do you agree with her?

Absolutely – had it not been for the war, women may never have had the chance to prove themselves as more than housewives. They stepped up and took over the roles that men fulfilled before they were sent to war. And guess what? They managed! They didn’t crumble and turn to dust! Many stories focus on the men’s successes, and the women’s are quietly forgotten. And I do believe that’s because women don’t seek recognition or rewards and will simply just get on with whatever needs to be done. Gender roles have definitely changed, and I think the war played a huge part in this. It proved that women could successfully do more than just cooking, cleaning, and looking after the kids.

6. Isabelle’s niece Sophie admires her aunt’s courage: “Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.” Do you agree? Is it better to take a risk and fail than never try at all? Do you think you could have acted as heroically as Isabelle under such horrifying circumstances? Who is more heroic in your mind—Isabelle or Vianne?

I do agree and believe some risks are meant to be taken. I always try to follow this motto, especially if it’s something I’m passionate about. I have never considered how I would act until I read this book. I like to think that I would fight knowing chances of dying were high regardless of my choices. If I could use that life to make a difference, then it’s a chance you have to take. However, it is much more my nature to just keep my head down and carry on like Vianne. I think both were heroic in their own way. Vianne had the responsibility of her children to protect first and foremost, but she still put her neck on the line to save Jewish children and forge their identity papers, all under the nose of the Nazi living in her home.

7. Perhaps one of the most chilling moments in the book is when Vianne provides Captain Beck with a list: Jews. Communists. Homosexuals. Freemasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses. We know now how wrong it was to provide this list, but can you understand why Vianne did it? What do you think you would have done?

I think Vianne tried to convince herself that the list was purely clerical, a census type thing, as Beck explained. It was naive of her to think that, and I found him to be a bit of a manipulator, but I don’t think she could possibly comprehend what was actually going to become of the list. I also felt that Vianne trusted Beck and didn’t want to defy him (or let him down). She would also have been thinking of Sophie and knew that any refusal could put her child in unnecessary danger.

8. Each of the sisters experiences love in a different way. Vianne’s love is that of a mature woman, a wife and a mother devoted to her family; Isabelle’s love is youthful and impulsive, more of a girlish dream than a reality. How did Isabelle’s feelings of abandonment shape her personality and her life? How did Vianne’s maternal love lead to acts of heroism, saving the lives of Jewish children? How did love—and war—bring these two sisters closer together?

Isabelle craved love. She fell in love instantly and hard. She needed love to ground her and make her feel safe. I think a lot of the time while fighting, she drew strength from Gaëtan and believed they could have that happily ever after she’d always dreamed about. Vianne’s love led to her playing an incredibly important role in the war – that of saving innocent Jewish children and I think the turning point for her was when she adopted Ari. After saving one child, she knew she could, and should, save more. The sisters were driven apart by their mother’s death and father’s abandonment and brought back together by the toll war took on them and their father’s letter that brought his love to the surface and allowed them to finally repair their relationship as sisters.

9. Take a moment to talk about Beck. Is he a sympathetic character? Did you believe he was a good man, or was he just trying to seduce Vianne? Did he deserve his fate?

I have conflicting opinions of Beck. Part of me wants to see the best in him and believe that he chose to help Vianne in a small act of defiance against the horror he knew Nazi’s were inflicting upon innocent people. But the other part of me sees through his little stunt and believes he was stationed in Vianne’s house to manipulate her and extract information. The fact that she killed him proves to me that she didn’t trust him as much as he thought, and that makes me question his true motive.

10. When Isabelle works with Anouk and other women of the French resistance, she notices “the wordless bond of women.” What does she mean? Do you agree that women who come from different backgrounds but share a common path can create a silent bond with other women? Why do you think this is so?

It’s like a woman’s instinct. Being part of the rebellion would make it easy to connect with other women as the path isn’t just a common one, it’s a dangerous and risky one. The unspoken word shows that they understand the dangers but share the same mindset that they weren’t just put on this Earth to carry out women’s duties. They don’t need to inflate their egos or dominate – the women are a team. 

11. Vianne recalls Antoine telling her that “we choose to see miracles.” What does he mean by this? Is it his way of telling his wife he knows the truth about their son’s biological father? Or is it his way of looking at life, of coping with the terrible events they’ve lived through?

I think Antoine knew the truth – he would have witnessed the Nazi brutality and probably countless rapes. Plus, I don’t believe Vianne could have fooled him. They were married for years before the war, and I think he would have been able to see through her pretence. He chose to see it as a miracle, knowing that he and Vianne always wanted more children. After so many years of suffering and heartache, I think he saw the baby as a new beginning and something to be grateful for. 

12. Discuss the scene in which Ari is taken away. What do you believe is the right answer in this situation—if there is one? What would you have done in Vianne’s position?

This part of the novel almost broke me. The poor child had already lost his mother, father, and sister and had finally settled into his new life. I understand why the officials wanted to send him to be with family, but Vianne should have been given a choice – Ari was quite clearly happy there and well looked after. Taking him away could have psychologically damaged him after everything he had already suffered. I don’t think Vianne had a choice, so I’d have done the same in her position. But I would have searched high and low for him afterwards. However, if I’d found out he was happy, I don’t think I would have tried to contact him. The child didn’t need any more confusion.

13. Do you think Julien had a right to know who his real father was? Would you have made the same decision Vianne did?

A father is a man who brings you up, supports you, and loves you no matter what. Just because Antoine wasn’t Julien’s biological father doesn’t make him any less of one. Julien didn’t need to know that he was the result of a Nazi rape. How could he have lived knowing that? In some instances, lies are acceptable, and this is a definite exception in my opinion.

14. Finally, a show of hands: Who cried—or at least got a little choked up—while reading this book? Which scenes moved you the most? Which character’s fate would you say was the most tragic? The most poignant? The most harrowing? Did the book give you a better understanding of life under Nazi occupation during World War II? Did it move you, inspire you, haunt you? And finally, what will you remember most about The Nightingale?

Firstly, I very rarely cry at books. Even though I’m a very emotional person, they just don’t affect me in the same way characters on TV do. That said, I shed a tear at Sarah’s death and Rachel’s last words. I could imagine my mum saying something similar, and that really choked me up. I also got emotional at the end when Ari introduced himself to Vianne. That was just such a wonderful surprise.

The most harrowing fate had to be Julien’s. I really wanted him to be given a chance to fully reconcile his relationship with his daughters. But his death wasn’t in vain, and I truly commended him for sacrificing himself to save Isabelle. That was the act of love Isabelle had always longed for – although in very different circumstances.

Isabelle’s carefree nature and dreams of happy ever after made her death tragic and poignant. More so because if the war had ended just a few weeks earlier, she might have survived.

The book definitely enlightened my understanding, especially from the women’s perspective and those left behind. I think it is natural to assume that those who weren’t shipped to the concentration camps were lucky, but in reality, many were living in as much fear, suffering daily persecution, left without the most basic needs, and forced to submit to the Nazi regime – this is the thing I will remember the most.


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