The Nightingale was a book I had heard many good things about, so when I was at the National Book Festival last fall I didn’t hesitate to buy a copy of it. When I finally got around to reading it, I enjoyed it but there were definitely some cliche moments that could have been improved.
Major spoilers are in the “My Thoughts” section below - read with that in mind.
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a historical fiction novel that takes place in Nazi-occupied France of World War II. Vianne and Isabelle, two very different sisters, have opposing goals. Vianne wants to survive the war with her family intact, and Isabelle wants to fight her enemies. Their relationship is tested many times over the years as the war changes everything about their lives and homes.
The Nightingale was a story that’s easy to get lost in and feel sad over. There were no slow, boring parts and I liked Hannah's writing style better and better.
The sisters and their relationship were the highlight of the novel. Isabelle was immature at first, but as she aged she grew up and I came to love her. She was brave, determined, and a hero. (By the end, it seemed like every character - not just Isabelle - was undercover against the Nazis, which is nice to imagine, but not factual or realistic. Readers more knowledgeable on the time period than me have pointed out plenty of the historical inaccuracies on Goodreads.) Vianne, throughout most of the story, was understandably focused on her daughter and keeping her safe. She believed she couldn’t risk her family for Isabelle’s ideals, and their alternating convictions kept them at odds in spite of a clear love for each other.
Isabelle, the secret hero, was the more interesting sister. I was disappointed with how little we saw of Isabelle’s treks across the mountain range. The first time she made the journey with the downed pilots was my favorite part of the book. She was so determined to do something! All her life she’d been forced to sit and be ladylike, and she finally was able to fight. It was a huge triumph of hers, and the most dramatic action of the novel, and yet it was such a short section. Instead, there were way too many explanations of the various days standing in line for food. I could’ve used more sneaking into other countries, less food vouchers.
Another part that was strangely skimmed over was Isabelle’s time in an internment camp. She wasn’t there for long as it was the very end of the war, but since it was only a few pages I didn’t spend much time anxious over her fate. I knew it would be over soon. It just didn’t touch me as deeply as her treks across the mountains and the daily struggles of the women when it should have. I know it was meant to cause Isabelle’s unexpected ending; however, I think the same ending could’ve been accomplished simply with Isabelle being kept for questioning a few more days instead of rushing an ending with the horrific camps.
(To be clear, I'm not saying internment camps weren't that bad. I just don't think they were included in this novel effectively.)
Despite those two complaints, this book was very realistic when it came to the women’s emotions and relationships. Vianne and Isabelle fought like all sisters do but loved each other deeply, even from a distance. The modern day chapters with Vianne’s reflections brought the story full circle and showed the power of a fighter’s convictions, decades later. This was a worthwhile book because of the women, and I would absolutely recommend it to fiction readers for that reason.
Overall, The Nightingale was a thought provoking book even if I did wish for more depth in parts. It was a 3.5 out of 5 for me and I would happily try some of Hannah’s other novels in the future.