“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah is a poignant and compelling novel about two sisters, Vianne Mauric and Isabelle Rossingnol, living in Nazi-occupied France.
The sisters lost their mother early, and when their father returned from the Great War, he was unable to care for his daughters. They both grew up scarred by the death of their mother and the emotional abandonment of their father. Vianne is one to try to live by the rules, but to Isabelle, rules are for breaking.
It is 1939 and Vianne’s husband, now in the French army, is captured by the Germans as they invade. Vianne adjusts to her life and remains in the family home in Carriveau, a quiet village in the south of France. Isabelle, sent by her father to a boarding school, knows about running away and being on her own and soon takes off for Paris.
Despite the fact that the women left behind had very difficult lives, some found the courage to do the right things. As the Nazis gain strength, each sister has to make some tough decisions. Each find the courage to do what has to be done.
At her home, Vianne must put up with German soldiers who demand to billet in her home while the Nazis invade France. The first one is tolerable, but a second soldier, a member of the Gestapo, mistreats Vianne terribly.
Isabelle gets involved with the French Resistance, risking everything. Her code name is “Nightingale,” as she delivers flyers and later delivers downed British and American airmen over the Pyrenees mountains and into Spain so that they can get back to Britain and rejoin the fighting.
The sisters each make mistakes and say things that are hurtful to each other, yet their sisterly bond remains strong. Vianne cannot just stand by and watch her best friend being deported. Isabelle has to learn to temper her outbursts so she can think clearly and not endanger the ones she wants to protect.
The story tells the stories of the deeds and suffering of women during World War II – the extraordinary measures they took to save others and the incredible, unimaginable conditions they endured.
This novel is beautifully written and meticulously researched. While the most obvious theme is life in occupied France during World War II, themes of nationalism, supremacy and the family unit are carefully addressed.
The author says the inspiration for Isabelle’s character was Andrée de Jongh, the young Belgium woman who established an escape network for airmen over the Pyrennes that later became known as the Comet Line.