The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
Summary: The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end.
“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.”
There are some books that keep you up at night because you can’t put them down. This was different. This story kept me up at night after I had laid the book down, drawn into the choices faced by the characters, the brutality they suffered, and the profound grief that comes of love and loss. I’ve read other books with “heavy” content, but rarely have I been touched as I was in reading this book.
The book opens in 1995 in the voice of the aged narrator, having lost her husband and been diagnosed with terminal cancer and attended by Julien, her surgeon son. She opens a trunk, comes across an identity card for Juliette Gervaise. We subsequently learn that the narrator has been invited back to a reunion of passeurs in Paris, those who had smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied France. And this leads to a narrative of the lives of two sisters, estranged from each other, and from a father, Julien Rossignol, who had faced the Germans in an earlier war, and whose life was broken because of it.
The two sisters are Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne, the older, had fallen in love, conceived a child out of wedlock, and married her lover, Antoine, making a home and an idyllic life in rural France. Isabelle, the younger and seemingly more-headstrong, moved from finishing school to finishing school, consigned to them by a widower father, living as a bookseller in Paris, who did not want to be involved in bringing up either of his daughters. Yet Isabelle ends up in Paris with her father, expelled from yet another school, and distant from a sister who seems to want nothing to do with her.
Into all their lives comes the Nazi threat to France. Antoine is called up to military service along with the husband of Vianne’s best friend Rachel de Champlain, a Jewish emigre’ to France. The confidence in their fighting men and the defenses of the Maginot Line are shattered as the Nazis invade and approach Paris. Isabelle flees, trying to get to Vianne’s home, survives the brutal strafing of fleeing civilians, and falls into the company of a radical, Gaetan, one of those dedicated to the French resistance. He wins her heart, then leaves her after they arrive at her sister’s.
For a time, Isabelle stays, in a relationship made more tense by the presence of a German officer, Captain Beck, billeted in Vianne’s home. Secretly, Isabelle is already enlisted in the resistance cause, while Vianne is faced with the quandary of living with an enemy, who yet seems a decent man. She errs in reluctantly giving the names of those who are Jews and communists in the school in which she teaches, including, her friend Rachel’s.
From here, the plot unfolds in a series of heroic, and sometimes tragic, choices against the backdrop of increasing German brutality. Isabelle becomes the Nightingale (her last name is Rossignol, the French for “nightingale”), and with the aid of her father, working for the Germans but secretly aiding the resistance, becomes Juliette Gervaise, smuggling downed pilots over the Pyrenees to freedom until finally captured by the Germans in the last months of the war. Meanwhile, Vianne, under the nose of SS officer Von Richter who has taken the place of deceased Captain Beck, is able to rescue 19 Jewish orphans, including Rachel’s son, paying for her work in the end by the violation of her own body.
The succession of tragic events these women and their father face are the history of the Holocaust, and the terrible banality of evil and brutality of act that characterized Nazism. Sometimes we become inured to so much evil, but this story brought that evil to life in the experiences of Isabelle, and Vianne, and their friends and, particularly, the children, that brought it up close and personal once more, a powerful use of fiction to document the fact of the Nazi horror.
The loves of each, including Julien Rossignol, the father, and the terrible exigencies of war do indeed shape and define their characters, and in ways I cannot reveal without giving away the end, result in the healing of estrangements among them. The narrator’s closing words speak of the triumph of love and goodness in the end: