While reading the first hundred or so pages of Kristin Hannah’s WWII fiction The Nightingale, I was reminded of key characters and plot lines from other war novels. Which sort of bothered me. Obviously, there was no plagiarism, but I sensed a lack of originality. Harrumphing ensued.
For example, Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, popped into my mind while Hannah described Parisians fleeing their city during the first days of the German occupation. Ghosts of Ken Follett’s Jackdaws appeared when Isabelle “the Nightingale” Rossignol started working with The Resistance, and when she led downed Allied airmen through the Pyrennes, there was a strong link to Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret. For a page or two Hannah touched on French Jews being transported to the Paris Vel’d’Hiv, which made me think of Sarah’s Key. Although her story of two feuding sisters in occupied France sustained my interest, I thought Hannah could do better.
And then she did. I was reading leisurely during the first third of the book, but once the sisters got more entrenched and took more chances and the Nazis escalated their cruelty, my little interludes of afternoon reading turned into a full-fledged, don’t-bug-me (I said that to the cat), I-don’t-know-when-I’ll-start-supper obsession. My heart ached for each sister and the decisions they were forced to make to stay alive, protect family, fight for country.
Isabelle becomes more daring and assumes greater risk with each trek to Spain with the airmen. Her older sister Vianne, meanwhile, must contend with Nazis billeted in her home. Both do their part and resist in their own way, but over time the stakes get higher and conditions more perilous: food shortages, lack of fuel and electricity, deportations of Jewish neighbors, deathly consequences for collaborators.
My harrumphing stopped. My eyes flew from page to page. Tears spilled. Twice.
Hannah produced a riveting war story, but underneath there was an important family tale with the sisters working out their history and finding love and forgiveness right in the middle of a world war. And then Hannah smacked me with a surprise ending. As if I needed that.
You should read this.