Originally read/reviewed February 2015
This is one of those reviews that I am hesitant to write because despite my best efforts there is nothing I can say that will do this remarkable story justice.
The Nightingale is a historical fiction novel that takes place during World War II in Nazi-Occupied France. Vianne is a young wife and mother living a quiet life in the town of Carriveau. Her younger sister Isabelle has been expelled from her latest boarding school and is eager to make her way to Paris to reunite with her emotionally distant and seemingly uncaring father. As the Nazi's invade France and the war shapes their lives in unimaginable ways, both women are faced with great challenges and impossible choices.
Isabelle started off an impetuous, reckless young woman. Still a teenager and full of passion and ideals without any understanding of the implications of her actions. The change and growth in her over the course of the book was astounding. She did not lose her passion or her ideals, nor did she ever stop taking risks, but living under the constant strain of discovery turned Isabelle from flighty to steely in determination to do her part.
Vianne is content with her life in Carriveau but when her husband is sent to fight the Germans invading France, she suddenly has only herself to rely upon. Through food shortages and harsh winters and a Nazi officer living in her home, Vianne has no choice but to find the strength to protect her family any way she can.
Both sisters are faced with unthinkable choices and hardship. Whether for the greater good or for daily survival, each is forced to sacrifice. Both live daily with fear, danger and the uncertainty of the future. My heart broke again and again for these women, for their circumstances, for their hardships and losses. I was sickened by the atrocities committed by the Nazi's, the brutality of the concentration camps, but also in awe of the courage and bravery shown by ordinary people who had so much to lose but took action anyway.
"For us [women] it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
Unlike many other novels about WW II, The Nightingale focuses on women. Their contributions and the impact on their lives. It tells the story of their courage, their bravery, their sacrifice. Women who joined the Resistance, women who hid Jewish friends or helped them escape, women who did without so their children (and the children of others) would not have to, women who endured unspeakable horrors and yet found the strength to stay alive. Just stay alive.
The Nightingale was a slow read for me. This is not a book to fly through. There was a slow progression of the story in the beginning. And I was reading even slower at the end because the events were so heart wrenching I was only able to read a few pages at a time before setting the book down in order to collect myself and try to keep the tears at bay. But even that was impossible. I was reduced to gasping, hiccupping sobs more than once in the last 30-40 pages. And it wasn't even possible to step back and tell myself it was just a story. Because it *did* happen. Maybe not to a woman named Vianne or a woman called Isabelle. Maybe not in the exact same way. But these events and these stories played out time and time again, in many different, horrific ways over the course of WW II.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
The Nightingale is powerful, emotional, and heartbreaking. It took me on a difficult journey, one I don't regret, and will stay with me for a long time to come.
Wounds heal. Love Lasts. We remain.