It always surprises people that I’ve never read anything by attorney-turned-author Kristin Hannah before now. It’s even more surprising that she only seriously crossed my radar when I read a blurb for her 2021 release, The Four Winds. I decided I needed to read something by her before this anticipated release, and here we are. While I currently have three Hannah novels on my shelves, I selected her highly lauded and “soon to be a major motion picture” novel, The Nightingale (2015), as my introduction to the author.
The writing style of this novel is simple and comforting; it’s not trying too hard to be something it’s not. And it’s in this familiar simplicity that Hannah has the ability to destroy her reader. I was positively gutted a couple of times in this novel. (If you’ve read it, you’re likely equally haunted by one heartbreaking scene in particular involving a young girl.)
The novel, set primarily in France, opens just as WWII is beginning and tells the story of two very different sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. The sisters have a rather tortured relationship, marred by a dead mother and an absent (and bitter and broken when not absent) father. After their father sends them away, Vianne quickly abandons her younger sister for the handsome young man who holds her heart. She marries young after becoming pregnant, but their love story is a true one. Isabelle spent much of her childhood struggling with being abandoned and longing to be loved. She’s grown up to be a wild one, with an untamed spirit. In her heart beats the constant fear that no one has loved her and no one ever will.
Vianne’s buried more babies than she’s nursed, but Sophie is her bright light and Antoine the love of her life. Her life is near perfect, but then her beloved gets called to war. Vianne is naïve and afraid; she remembers what the war did to her own father, how it broke him and left him empty with nothing more to give. Surely war wouldn’t come to sleepy Carriveau. Surely the line would hold. In the blink of an eye, the Germans arrive. A young (and handsome) captain chooses her home as his. He is kind to her, which proves both a blessing and a curse.
Their father sends Isabelle to Carriveau under the guise that Paris is no longer safe. She arrives, battered and dehydrated, having been forced to join the throngs of those fleeing Paris on foot and running from attacks. It is during this journey that she meets Gaetan, the man who will change the course of her destiny.
The sisters are night and day. Vianne pleads with Isabelle not to be so hot headed, to do as she is told and keep her head down. But Isabelle is untamed; she will cause ripples. She will cause waves. She will be a tsunami upon them.
In the two sisters, Hannah captures a woman’s war. Vianne fights as she can, her priorities are to family and home. She will do anything for her daughter. Anything. Vianne is the mother, and her rebellions have the quiet strength of a woman who has loved and lost and who knows she’ll do both for the rest of her days. Isabelle is daring and fearless. Emboldened by years of being treated like a pretty, empty thing, she is hellbent on proving herself to her sister, her father, Gaet, and even herself. She joins the fight – her code name is “Nightingale.” Isabelle may be a fictional character, but her heroic efforts in shepherding shot-down pilots safely across the Pyrenees are well-rooted in history.
While the novel flowed with relative ease, I did take issue with the inconsistent and unnecessary usage of French; the reader knows the dialogue is taking place in French even though written in English, so constantly throwing a “oui” or a “Mon Dieu” just seemed unwarranted and a bit annoying. That said, this tale of two sisters, the choices they made and the secrets they buried, was simply and exquisitely told.