It’s rare to find a book I know I have to share, one which has a combination of story and words and character which pulls me in so deeply that it’s impossible to stop reading until the last page is turned. Some books I enjoy are more artistic and don’t draw a large readership, but the rare gems are the ones which are complex and have depth and still are accessible and enjoyable for many readers. My book recommendation this time is widely read, fairly new, and topping the bestseller lists, and there’s a good reason why—the book is fantastic from every angle, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
When I first heard of The Nightingale, I thought I’d read similar World War II based books and grown weary of them, but a few weeks later, I bought it because I heard it is about these three words: the women’s war.
That, I love.
The Nightingale is the most sweeping account I’ve read of World War II France, and Hannah’s focus on two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, is what makes the novel unforgettable.
The opening begins simply enough, in present day United States. An elderly woman opens an old storage trunk and a card stops her. It says Juliette Gervaise, a name her son doesn’t know or understand. When he asks about the card, she smiles and pretends as if she doesn’t know. But she does. It has been her long-held secret.
The narrative then shifts from the present to France in 1939, when a woman named Vianne watches her husband leave for the war. Around the same time, her teenage sister follows the exodus from Paris when it is overtaken by the Germans, and struggles to find a place in the new order imposed by the war. I found myself pulled into the sisters’ stories by page fifty, and soon after, I couldn’t set the book down. I had to know happened to each of them because I cared deeply for the two.
The author writes that a real-life heroine inspired the character of the younger sister, Isabelle, whose pluck and wit serve her in ways that are surprising. Vianne lives a provincial life as a schoolteacher and tries to endure the war alongside her young daughter and lifelong friends. Her more responsible character adds a practical dimension to Isabelle’s grand heroics.
The author begins at the outset of the war and continues through to the end, and doesn’t spare the reader any of the horrors faced at that time. The atrocities are balanced by the heart and real family dynamics between the sisters and their father, their loved ones, and friends. I experienced every possible emotion in the journey to the end of the book.
The Nightingale is a powerful story, one that is heartbreaking over and over again. But this is the importance of reading historical fiction: that we will read it and remember and vow to never let this history repeat itself again.
The Nightingale is a novel which must be read. It’s one you’ll find yourself reading late into the night, one which has the power to burrow into your heart. It would be a great one to discuss in book clubs and with friends. It is one which now sits on my favorite books shelf. Thank you, Kristin Hannah, for this great work.
Have you read The Nightingale or another of Kristin Hannah’s works? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!