Reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah has been a long journey. I meant to read in back in 2017, then I kept it by my bed through most of 2018. It’s only toward the end of the year that I finally got serious. It’s not that the book wasn’t good—it was amazing—it’s that I knew it would take an emotional toll, and it was easier to avoid that. With some books you can float over the surface. Those books are fun, but they don’t linger in the mind. The ones that linger require becoming emotionally invested, but they’re hard to leave. This one lingered; it was beautiful and terrible.
Vianne and Isabelle are sisters who both experience the Nazi incursion of France differently. While Vianne hunkers down with Sophie, her daughter, waiting for her husband to come back from the front lines, Isabelle is consumed with anger, fighting with defiance first and helping downed airmen second. But the realities of war, the cruelties, draw both sisters deep into the fight for freedom, France, and humanity.
The Nightingale is powerful, not because of what the characters do but because of why they do it: it’s the right thing to do. Self-sacrifice purely for the reason of goodness is the best of humanity. It’s what we were meant to be, what we were meant to do. There’s something of the divine in that.
Vianne is hard to like at first. Her refusal to face reality, the willingness to bow under the Nazi thumb, doesn’t make her very likable. It took me too long to realize that there’s a different sort of strength in that willing humility.
Isabelle is easier to like because her strength and her spirit are more obvious, but it also makes her easier to not get emotionally attached to, if that makes sense. It’s towards the end of the book when Isabelle is refined by suffering and humility into something beautiful and free. Suffering for others, for something important, is the ultimate freedom. Even if it brings the ultimate pain as well.
One of the most interesting parts of this book isn’t the bravery of the two sisters or the risks they take for others, it’s the love for a child not their own. This part made me weep, especially the way the plot made its way around (it started in the 90s, flashed back to the war, and ended in the 90s) to end on that same child. It was inexpressibly sweet. It shows that love never dies, no matter how far apart in space and time people are separated. I can’t say more than that without giving anything away.
There was also the juxtaposition of two German officers, one good, one completely and totally evil. It shows that truth of the war, that not all men are good or evil, that the enemy is made up of husbands, sons, and brothers that are loved and struggling to find the right path, that narrow way between loyalty to country and loyalty to the right.
One of the reasons the book gripped my heart was the writing. Beautiful writing can make a meh book good. Beautiful writing turns a good book into pleasure and pain:
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us 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.”
There’s power in women, strength in us. War is never just about the soldiers; it affects all. There’s a lot about love, not just romantic love, but all love. Love for each other:
“Love. It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between.”
“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.”
“But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.”
“Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”
Anybody interested in shadow war, in the battles raging within the quiet walls of woman’s soul, in the women and children left behind to hold down the home, need to read this book. The Nightingale gives a silent nod of gratitude to the women who helped win World War II.