Set across France, The Nightingale is a story about the plight of two sisters during WWII and how they both face immeasurable trials to keep themselves and those they love alive. The younger sister’s name is Isabelle, an infuriatingly headstrong 19 year old who won’t take “no” for an answer. Since young, she’d been pushed away by their father and sent to a number of boarding schools to learn how to be a civilized young woman– but to no one’s surprise, she’s run away from all of them, instead seeking a cause to dedicate herself to. When the war breaks out, Isabelle is livid that the French government has, in her eyes, barely put up a fight, surrendering to the Nazis leaving millions of helpless French to become prisoners in their own homes. On her way to her sister’s she stumbles across Gaetan, a former prisoner who she falls deeply in love with. As a much older man, he chides her for ignorance and inability to really understand what war will bring and the consequences of the blatant fury she carries so openly. Later, unable to sit idly by, Isabelle is overcome with intense drive and is able to join a top-secret resistance group, becoming “the nightingale,” helping to smuggle out downed Allied airmen out of France through the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, Vianne, ten years Isabelle’s senior, is markedly different. To escape her father’s spite, she married, left Paris and moved to the sleepy village of Carriveau where she is a teacher and raising a young daughter Sophie. Her husband, Antione, is forcibly conscripted into the French army and sent to war, leaving her and Sophie behind in a village of women and children. Her will to live sharpens and she becomes completely focused on caring for her daughter and keeping her out of harms way. Eventually, a Nazi soldier moves into her home and she stays quiet, obeying his commands. When he asks her to write down all the names of the Jewish people, Communists and Freemasons she knows, she naively and willingly writes a list down, including the names of her best friend Rachel and Rachel’s two children. When Isabelle is sent from Paris to live with her, they clash, Isabelle furious that Vianne is so resigned and submissive to the enemy and Vianne upset that Isabelle would defy a Nazi in their home and put Sophie at risk. After Isabelle leaves to join the resistance without Vianne’s knowledge, Vianne is left to weather the storm and things turn for the worse when another Nazi moves in her home, preying upon Vianne and impregnating her.
I put this book on my priority list because of how well it’s rated on Goodreads. The book does get better after the beginning, when Isabelle’s honestly annoying, entitled, bratty self falls for Gaetan and is “heartbroken” when he leaves her at her sister’s house. I was afraid that this adolescent love story would mar the potential of the story. There aren’t too many books about WWII following the lives of young women, let alone stories that have multi-dimensional women rebelling in ways that don’t involve battlefields. Overall I did enjoy the book but I felt that Isabelle’s strikingly immature “love” as one of the first scenes the reader gets to know her, leaves a bitter taste among her other traits such as putting other people in serious danger due to her immaturity and failure to think things through. Vianne, on the other hand goes through a much more natural character evolution, one that was much better carried out I felt. Her struggle to survive becomes more than just a struggle to live, but a struggle to find dignity in her life, despite living destitute, being raped and taking in Rachel’s Jewish toddler and hiding him.
I, like many other readers, found parts of the narrative to be a little be contrived; someone wrote in a review that it seemed the author did some basic research about some of the more horrific crimes committed and then weaved them all into the story. I felt this to be somewhat true as seemingly ever worst case movie-like scenario took place, but the character got away, just in the nick of time. As a reader, I was never left guessing what would happen next because it became fairly predictable: Isabelle would start thinking before she opened her mouth, Vianne would grow a pair, their father would feel remorseful and make some big sacrifice, Gaetan would come back in some capacity, Sophie would survive but grow up scarred. I am by no means trying to spoil anything, but as a reader, if you trust your gut, the story will most likely turn out the way you suspect it will.