Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review: The Nightingale

Note: I've got major spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

Plot: [SPOILER] Two French sisters work with the French resistance during World War II in very different ways: one by shepherding fallen Allied airman over the Pyrenees and back to safety, and the other by saving and hiding nineteen Jewish children in her home and in a convent orphanage while a sadistic German soldier is billeted with her family.

Thoughts: Oh, The Nightingale. This book was a hard read because the subject matter was so heavy, but it was excellent. I've read a lot of books about World War II (it seems like that's all we read in high school) and have seen many of the movies, but this story was different to me for two reasons: 1. the focus was on the women who were left behind when the men went off to fight and 2. the main characters weren't people that we typically think of as victims of the Nazi regime (Jews, communists, gays, mentally impaired), but their lives were most definitely destroyed (either temporarily or permanently) by the Nazis.

I am the first to admit that I don't usually think much about the people left behind in the occupied countries and what their lives must have been like. This book illustrates how very, very hard their lives were. [SPOILERS from here on] It also reminded me that women were so important to the fight.

Isabelle is the obvious heroine and I really did love her, but I think Viann is the more interesting character because she made so many mistakes (like giving a list of Jews and communists to the German soldier billeted with her because he told her it was simply "clerical" information). She was incredibly naive, and she was also terrified. On a personal level, I relate much more to Viann than someone like Isabelle who is automatically brave and heroic and unstoppable.

After all her mistakes and hemming and hawing, Viann takes a stand and does the right thing; she felt redeemed to me and that made the whole book. She didn't give into her fear and guilt and failure. She just tried to make things right. She risked her life and her sanity to save her own daughter, her friends' children, and children she didn't even know. She nursed her dying sister. She forgave her absentee father. She lived her whole life keeping a terrible secret from her husband and son to protect them from pain.

I have to admit that I didn't expect Isabelle to die. She seemed so unbreakable to me, and for at least the first half of the book, I though she was the old lady narrating the 1995 chapters. I hate that the Nazis ultimately broke a person that was so forceful and larger than life, but it's probably the most realistic way the author could have closed out Isabelle's story. I found it very unbelievable that Gaeton would have survived the war, but that scene was a sweet, romantic touch.

Favorite part: I loved so many parts. Julian's letter to the girls was really beautiful. And when Isabelle describes the unparalleled pride she felt sending her first telegraph to Paul saying, "The Nightingale has flown," I felt proud for her. The end was lovely, especially when Viann and Ari see each other. Admittedly though, I cried for hours afterward and had a "sadness hangover" (got that from Renee :-)) for days.

Least favorite part: I hated the scene with Beck panicking and terrifying Viann because of the missing airman (I could write a whole essay about my conflicted thoughts on Beck). The fact that Isabelle and Viann killed him felt like a mercy in a way because it probably wouldn't have been so quick if the Nazis had done it. He also seemed like an ok person that did not agree with the Nazi agenda and his death prevented him from having to be a part of that regime as it grew worse and worse. And then the airman died anyway and it was such a punch in the gut because it was like all of those dominoes fell for no reason.

Just about every scene with Von Richter was horrifying. Worse than anything though, were the scenes when Isabelle is tortured by the Nazis and those where she is travelling to and is in the concentration camp. I had a couple sleepless nights filled with nightmares because of these parts. Every time I see a movie or read a book about World War II, I feel so scared of what humans can do to each other.

My grade: A

Who would I recommend it to: Everyone.

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