Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: The Nightingale

Near the end of The Nightingale, a novel by Kristin Hannah, the protagonist, an old woman, makes an observation in 1995. Looking back at her life and her role in the French Resistance during World War II, she observes that war is essentially a guy thing.

When it comes to remembering wartime contributions, it is men who get the parades and the medals. It is men who write the books, make the speeches, hold reunions, and seek the glory.

It is men who get the credit.

But as The Nightingale reminds us, women -- in this case, civilian women -- fight wars too. They do it quietly, bravely, and usually with little fanfare. They do it in ways that are no less important than the men fighting for God and country on the front lines.

In The Nightingale, the No. 1 New York Times bestseller, two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol, take up the fight against their Nazi German occupiers in different ways and at different times. Both succeed to different degrees.

Vianne, the go-along-get-along school teacher, at first seeks accommodation with the enemy. She tries to ride out the war from the family home as she takes care of Sophie, her young daughter, and awaits the return of Antoine, her French soldier husband.

Isabelle, the rebellious younger sister, jumps right into the fight. A beautiful misfit battling a host of personal demons, stemming from a lifetime of neglect, she joins the active resistance and repeatedly risks her life guiding downed Allied airmen to Spain and freedom.

Telling the story from the perspective of both sisters, Hannah produces a novel that is poignant, captivating, and informative.

Many have compared this book to All the Light We Cannot See and The Book Thief, the recent and widely celebrated novels by Anthony Doerr and Markus Zusak, respectively. All three works paint a compelling picture of occupied Europe during World War II.

I think The Nightingale holds up well against the other books. As a work about the role of women in the French Resistance, it also compares favorably to Jackdaws, a novel by Ken Follett, and Charlotte Gray, a 2001 feature film starring Cate Blanchett.

I recommend The Nightingale not only to readers who like riveting accounts of civilians in wartime but also to those who are drawn to celebrations of the human spirit. Rating: 5/5.

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