Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale

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“In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.”

Recently, I picked up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah during a stop at the local library, and I have to say, it was worth all the hubbub over on Goodreads! Since it was a World War II novel, the topic alone piqued my interest (it’s one of my favorite eras to read about, fictional or factual). Hannah also wrote The Nightingale from the perspective of two women, which is not as common a point of view in historical records or fictionalizations, particularly in wartime writings, so my quietly-feminist heart went a-pitter-pat when I realized it was a story of female strength and endurance amidst war-ravaged Europe.

Hannah treated these women’s experiences with dignity and poise, clearly respecting the sometimes-unsung contributions of females historically in wartime. Vianne’s and Isabelle’s characterizations, options and realities were realistically done; and Hannah wrote their comprehension of and gradual acclimation to wartime life as though these women were actually experiencing the events of life in France during the second world war, rather than from the more-omniscient hindsight perspective found in history texts and memoirs.

The first-person framing narration of the current-day Rossignol sister’s life and struggle to meld her present and her past, while facing a rapidly-shortening future, was well-written and compelling. My certainty regarding which sister was speaking to me flip-flopped between Isabelle and Vianne throughout the novel, and occasionally I wondered if it was neither sister but instead Sophie, Vianne and Antoine’s daughter. The narrator was never wholly one woman or the other to me, more a melding between the two defined characters of Isabelle and Vianne as I came to know them through the book. This seeming blend of the two women now makes more sense to me, having finished the novel and come to understand that the two sisters were two halves of a whole–much as their Maman foresaw when they were young. Each sister’s perspective and personality was heavily influenced by the other’s, and the experiences of the war eventually drew them together.

The family element of this story was one of my favorite pieces, as was the underpinning of feminism Hannah utilized (especially in Isabelle’s character, but also subtly in Vianne’s). Sidebar: I really enjoyed reading about Isabelle’s adventures as “the Nightingale.” I must say that I was taken a little aback by the inclusion of intimate war violence against women (Von Richter was, quite frankly, a slime-ball), and I thought that took away a bit from the novel, to be honest. I know it was a sad reality for women during the war, and Hannah’s novel was felt quite realistic in regards to different characters’ experiences, but that particular element didn’t seem as necessary (or maybe it could’ve been handled differently) except that it allowed the current-day relationship of Julien and Vianne to occur.

Overall, I’d rate this as a 4.0/5 stars. A strong novel and well-done, with an interesting and multi-veined subject. I would reread The Nightingale, and perhaps seek out more of Hannah’s work, but I would recommend that only mature/adult readers pick it up due to some of the content.

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