In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.
My Review (Spoilers!):
Executive Summary: slow to start but really strong ending
This book has a nearly perfect rating on Amazon, but our book club was still a little hesitant to read this one due to a previous Kristin Hannah book we read (Magic Hour, pre-blog) which was very mediocre. I’m happy to report that Hannah has matured as an author and in my mind, pulled off a nearly impossible task–a great ending!!
I apologize that this review will not be quite as detailed as some of my others–I’ve found myself so swamped and want to get this in here before I bet even more swamped with the holidays!
The book starts with an old woman who is being moved into a nursing home due to a poor cancer prognosis, and she is going through her stuff. The book goes back and forth between the old woman and her son (present time) but mostly stays in the past.
Sisters Isabelle and Vianne have been emotionally estranged for most of their lives. Their father came back from the Great War a changed man and when their mother died, the girls were off to boarding school. Vianne was much older than Isabelle and as soon as Vianne was old enough to get married and move on with her life, she did. She married Antoine and despite a number of miscarriages, had a daughter Sophie and lived in Carriveau. Isabelle fared worse. Her sister never stuck up for her and left her as soon as possible. Isabelle failed out of one boarding school after another, unwelcome at Vianne’s and unwelcome with her father in Paris. Vianne’s dream life in the French countryside comes to a dramatic halt when Antoine, a postman, is drafted for war (WW2). Her friend Rachel’s husband is also drafted.
Isabelle is kicked out of yet another school and is sent back to Paris. Her father has no interest in her living with him but he begrudgingly allows her until the Germans invade Paris. Then he sends her to Carriveau to live with Vianne, especially now that she is alone. Eventually the car that she is in runs out of gas and they are forced to walk. The family she was riding with abandons her, and she finds herself alone. Luckily she is stubborn and persistent. She meets a young man, Gaetan who is roasting a rabbit on a fire. They decide to stop by Carriveau, see his mother in Poitiers and then go join the resistance. They finally get to Carriveau, having to walk most of the way. Vianne doesn’t answer as the house has been harassed by other refugees all day so Gaetan and Isabelle sleep in the back. When Isabelle finally awakens, Gaetan has left her with just a note “You are not ready”.
Isabelle grows more and more enraged. She wants to help but can’t. Vianne doesn’t want to rock the boat at all, even when things get more and more dire and France surrenders. After hiding all the valuables despite Vianne telling her how foolish it was, Isabelle turns on the radio and hears General de Gaulle who is talking about the resistance. Isabelle realizes there is some hope…until the Nazis come to Carriveau and a soldier, Captain Wolfgang Beck, billets in their home. In general, he is pretty reserved. He believes he is fighting the good fight, hoping to get back to his own wife and kids.
Isabelle, Vianne, and Sophie go on pretending things are normal–going into town to pick up their rations, growing their garden. One day when Isabelle is going into town to get rations, she picks up a piece of chalk. She notices a war propaganda poster in an alley and decides to draw a giant V on it (for Victory) with the chalk when she is caught. She can’t see who it is who has caught her and where she is being taken, but she eventually realizes it’s not to the Gestapo–it’s to the resistance. They realize that women and girls can get away with a lot more than men so they task her with delivering messages. She is thrilled!
She delivers many messages–sneaking away at all hours to do so. On one occasion, Vianne and Sophie see her and Vianne immediately assumes that Isabelle’s odd behavior is because of a boy.
Meanwhile, Vianne learns that Antoine has been captured, but Captain Beck is able to get messages to him. In return, Vianne lists all Jews, Communists, etc. who are teachers at her school, including her best friend Rachel, and they are all dismissed.
Isabelle gets the message that she is needed, and heads into town. She is needed for bigger tasks–the first being to take a message to Paris and stay there to be the contact. She convinces Captain Beck to give her a pass on account of her father being ill. Vianne still assumes that Isabelle is going on about for a boy and Isabelle lets her believe it. She arrives in Paris and sees the bookstore all boarded up, and waits in the apartment until her father returns. Eventually she convinces her father to let her stay. She meets her first appointment with another woman messenger. She is brought into their group and given a false identity (Juliette Gervais) and given more tasks especially when they realize that her fancy education has taught her German and English. She reopens her father’s bookstore to use as a front and it earns her a little money as well.
One night on her way home from picking up food (leftovers from the Germans in the restaurant), she finds a British RAF pilot. She decides to take him to their apartment and hide him in the closet in her room. She takes him to the other resistance people who don’t know what to do. They are trying to figure out how to get the downed pilots into Spain but that means having to cross the Pyrenees. Isabelle has a family friend who is a Basque and she thinks that she can help by going undetected and getting the men to safety. As she is helping flesh out the plan, in comes Gaetan. He tells her that he left because it’s dangerous and he wanted to forget her, but now it turns out they’re working together like she had wanted.
When she gets home, she discovers another surprise. Her father too is working for the resistance. He works for the Nazis where he can create fake papers for people including her. He knew about the airman she was hiding and told her that he had sent her away to protect her. He already knows about her plan to lead the airmen to Spain and gives her the name of the family friend. He tells her that she will never be able to come back because she will have to go completely underground from now onward.
The first trip is the biggest risk as they can’t be sure that Madame Babineau will help them, but when Isabelle appears with 4 airmen, Madame Babineau indeed does. Isabelle, Eduardo (guide) and the airmen make the rough 5-day trek across the Pyrenees into Spain. Isabelle presents them at the British consulate and is provided with money to set up safe houses, food and clothing for the inevitable other airmen. She sent word back that “The Nightingale has Sung” alerting the resistance that she made it.
In the meantime in Carriveau, everyone is nervous about the collaborators and people are being rounded up for the slightest infractions. The Jews, including Rachel, have to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing.
Over the next months, the Nightingale continues to escort airmen into Spain as the Germans start closing in on her. The Resistance sets her up with a job doing clerical work for the Nazis. No one knows what she’ll be doing. When she arrives, she finds that she is sorting foreign born Jews from native born. When she sees the name of the mastermind behind her branch of the resistance on the list, she feigns flu and leaves. All the foreign born Jews are being rounded up and sent to the camps in Germany. In Carriveau, the same is happening. However, Captain Beck alerts Vianne that Rachel should not be home the following morning. This time Vianne listens and she, Rachel and Rachel’s two kids take the long walk to see if they can cross the border with Rachel’s false paperwork. When they get close, something goes awry and the guard opens fire on the crowd. Sophie’s best friend Sarah does not survive. Rachel and Ari hide in Vianne’s barn while Vianne buries Sarah.
The next day, they walk with Rachel back to her house later in the day (because somehow they thought they would round everyone up in a couple hours in the morning) and she is picked up by the gestapo. Since Ari was born in France, he can stay, and Vianne takes him in. She tells Captain Beck what she has done, and he promises to not turn her in and even gets her a set of fake papers for him.
Isabelle returns to Carriveau on a mission and upon arrival stumbles upon a downed airman. She and her colleagues take him to Vianne’s house where they hide in the safe spot under the car in the barn. Unfortunately the airman was too far gone and dies. All the soldiers in Carriveau are looking for this pilot, including Captain Beck. Vianne sees the barn door is astray and thinks it’s Rachel. She is shocked and annoyed when she finds that it’s Isabelle and the pilot and says some terrible nasty things to Isabelle. When Beck returns home, he realizes that he has not searched her barn. When he goes out there, he finds the trap door, and Vianne hits him over the head with a shovel as he opens the door and Isabelle shoots him.
Isabelle is taken to a safe place, the bodies are disposed of, and Vianne tells the soldiers that Captain Beck went looking for the pilot and never returned. Vianne gets a new, much worse Nazi billeting with her in his place. Whereas Beck did not like the direction that the war had moved, Captain von Richter did and he took his power very seriously. Vianne begins to grow a spine and take part in a plan where she moves Jewish children into the church orphanage. To keep suspicion down, she is a good little French woman to von Richter who repeatedly rapes and beats her.
Meanwhile Isabelle keeps the Nightingale going, meeting Gaetan secretly when they cross paths. On a trip to the Pyrenees, the safe house is raided and everyone is captured. Isabelle is questioned for days, but everyone assumes the Nightingale is a man.
Isabelle’s father goes to Carriveau to tell Vianne the news that Isabelle has been captured. He tells her, as best as he can, how sorry he is about everything. He tells her that she needs to be strong for Isabelle and asks her what she would do to save Sophie before going off and confessing that he is the Nightingale to free Isabelle and save her life. She is thrown onto a train with other political prisoners and is left there until the war ends and she is freed.
Antoine returns to a broken and pregnant Vianne. They manage to hold it together for Sophie and Ari. Vianne continues to search for news of Isabelle but cannot find any. She learns that Rachel and her husband have died, and one day, two Jewish men come for Ari. He has family in New York who want to look after him, and it is important for him to learn the Jewish customs since so few of his generation remain.
Isabelle returns to Carriveau, gravely sick. Antoine, Vianne, and Sophie keep her alive until Gaetan arrives and she dies peacefully.
The story returns to the old woman, who we now know is not Isabelle like I had assumed (and hoped). It is Vianne and her child Julien born from the Nazi captain. Vianne has been invited to speak in Paris on account of Isabelle where she is posthumously presented an award for her service. She sees Gaetan there who tells Vianne that he loved her (Isabelle) all his life. And then lastly, she meets Ari who has come there to reconnect with her, telling her how she saved his life. Julien admires his mother in a way he never knew.
Verdict: 4 stars
I actually found myself getting a little misty eyed in parts during this book which doesn’t happen frequently. I really liked Isabelle and was rooting for her during the book. I was really surprised to find that the “old woman” was actually Vianne in the end and in general, I really thought the flash forwards were woven in thoughtfully (which is not that common). I’m really racking up my WW2 books this year as I’m already reading another one!