When I initially read the description for this book, my first thought was, “another book about World War II?” It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good World War II novel—All the Light We Cannot See, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are some of my favorites. It just seems that there have been so many published recently. But I’m so glad I decided to pick this one up—this one stands out from among the rest.
The story follows two sisters—Vianne and Isabelle—during the Nazi occupation of France. The juxtaposition and contrast between the two sisters gave a great deal of depth to the book. All too often, books about World War II focus solely on resistance fighters and those who are defying the system in grandiose ways, while looking down on and deriding those who didn’t take as obvious of a stand against the Germans. I appreciated that this book showed the complexity and struggle of the situation.
Isabelle is the sister who portrays the more stereotypical character in books about the French resistance–she’s hot-headed and passionate, ready to throw her lot in with anyone who is willing to take action against the Nazis. Over the course of the book, she grows and matures—we watch as her suffering and bravery give her a rootedness, and as she comes to realize that her hot-headedness and willingness to say whatever is on her mind could endanger those she is seeking to help.
Isabelle stands in contrast to her sister Vianne. Vianne is married with a child (though her husband is off fighting), and her goal in the war is to keep her head down and survive. She cares about her daughter’s safety above all. A German officer ends up billeted in her home, and she struggles to demonize him as “the enemy” in her mind when he appears so human and decent in their daily interactions. Yet as the war heats up and the German treatment of the Jews becomes more obvious, Vianne must draw her own line in the sand as well.
This book is an intriguing study of bravery and courage—and how these things can look different for different people. I loved the subtlety and nuance of these two sisters—both of whom initially balked at each other’s behavior in the face of danger, but both of whom end up recognizing each other’s bravery in the end. It’s a beautiful study of the difficulty in knowing what’s right, what lengths to go to, and how to protect one’s family while not looking the other way in the face of evil.
This was an amazing novel—poignant, compelling, and moving. My only complaint was that it seemed so American in its approach. Don’t get me wrong—the author did her homework about France and the period of the German occupation. The settings seemed very real – both Paris and the small French villages exuded “Frenchness,” and the author included lovely details about the food and language that made a Francophile like me smile. Yet it was something about the style in which the story was told that struck me as American—it somehow seemed too heroic. Certainly, the French have incredibly heroic stories in their history, but as a people they don’t seem to draw attention to these stories in the same way that Americans do. And Americans seem much more enamored with re-telling stories of World War II than the French do.
In one sense, the history of World War II is much more immediate for the French. I remember being struck with this while visiting France—seeing all of the war memorials and the plaques remembering deported Jews. It was a striking reminder that this war occurred on their soil and there was a sense of immediacy that I hadn’t experienced in the US. As I pondered the idea of The Nightingale seeming somewhat Americanized, the part of the story that rang most true for me was that the main character hadn’t shared her war experiences with her son. She’d locked away those memories into a separate part of herself and moved on to a post-war life. The heroism had happened. But it wasn’t quite French to keep talking about it the way these Americans did.
Because of this nagging sense of the “Americanization” of the book, I’d be very curious to hear a French person’s perspective on this novel. I found it to be an incredibly compelling read, and I have continued to think about the story and the characters long after I put the book down.