St. Martin’s Press 2015, 440 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Collier County Public Library: Yes
“This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.” — Winston Churchill
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War in France, The Nightingale is a riveting story of love and family drama. Like All The Light We Cannot See, this book is told from the perspective of civilians, specifically the extremely heroic ordinary Frenchwomen.
By the end of 1940, France was basically a land of women and children. Most of the men of fighting age were dead or in prison camps. When these women sent their men off to war, they were sure that defending the Maginot Line would keep France safe from invasion and the men would be back in a matter of months. Instead, the people of France were betrayed by their own Vichy government, then occupied by the Germans, and the French soldiers sent to prison camps.
The Nightingale is the tale of the Rossignol family, sisters Vianne and Isabelle and their father Julien. After their mother died, Julien deposited his 14-year-old Vianne and 4-year-old Isabelle at the family summer home, Le Jardin, in Carriveau to the care of a harsh housekeeper. Vianne was befriended by local boy Antoine Mauriac, the love of her life, and at age 17, they were married. Her father gave her Le Jardin and never set foot in the house again. Isabelle, always a stubborn independent child, continued her cycle of expulsions from a string of schools. After her final expulsion, she was forced to leave Paris and journey to Le Jardin to live with sister Vianne and niece Sophie. Not a happy prospect for either sister.
At age almost 19, Isabelle is angry, independent, stubborn and a big supporter of Charles DeGaulle, whose radio address to France has inspired her to resist the occupation of her country. The events that occur on Isabelle’s trek from Paris to Carriveau cement her resolve not to knuckle under to the Germans. Vianne is the opposite, happy with her life and a firm believer that the Vichy government is doing the right thing for France. She does not know who Charles DeGaulle is. Meanwhile, father Julien is in his Paris apartment, working for the Nazis during the day and drinking himself to numbness in the evening.
The Nightingale opens with a woman in Oregon organizing her things to leave her home and move into a retirement home at the request of her son, a surgeon. In the attic, she finds old yellowed photos including one of Juliette Gervaise. She is reduced to tears. In subsequent chapters, we learn that the woman in Oregon is one ofthe Rossignol sisters, but we do not know until the last chapter of the book whether it is Isabelle or Vianne. The woman in the Oregon chapters is written in the first person, and that part of the story is interspersed throughout the book, a device which enables the author to reveal all in the final chapter. Hannah ties up all the loose ends very adeptly in that last chapter.
The title, The Nightingale, relates to the French Resistance member who devised the idea to save Allied pilots by leading them over the Pyrenees to the British consulate in Spain. Rossignol is French for nightingale.
This book is a great read. It is easy to get lost in the story and forget about anything else. Not only is the storytelling masterful with unrelenting new developments, but the character maturation is absolutely superb. Hannah’s characters change in response to the events of their lives in a very credible manner. During the early years of the occupation, the French women who were in the Resistance went undetected because it never occurred to the Germans that women would have the audacity to work against them. In fact, the French Resistance depended greatly on women to help save and repatriate downed Allied pilots. When the Germans started rounding up their Jewish neighbors for “relocation,” it was the women who took in some of those Jewish neighbors, especially their children, and hid then right under the noses of the Nazis.
Hannah really brings home the extreme deprivation civilians experienced in that war. Their clothing and shoes were in tatters, no radios were allowed to keep abreast of the war news (they found ways), no one could be trusted, collaborators were everywhere. There was no medicine, no fuel for heat during the frigid winter, hardly any food, and children died from colds that turned into pneumonia. Nazis billeted themselves in French homes at their will.
It is easy to recommend this book. It is set against the Second World War, but primarily this really is a tale of family and love. Not just romantic love, but all aspects of love. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed in The Nightingale. I was casting the movie by the end of chapter three. That is my personal yardstick for an engrossing read.
Rating: 4.5/5.0. This book is available everywhere including our local public library.
Happy Passover! Happy Easter!
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.