Two sisters, as different as they can be, are sent away by their father whose WWI experience changed him so much that when his beloved wife dies, he can no longer be father to them. As WWII rushes into their lives all three confront it differently. The younger sister rushes headlong into resistance groups doing whatever she can. The older sister sees the love of her life march away leaving her with her young daughter to survive as best she can. Each plays a specific part in resisting German occupation until at long last France can be liberated. The book details the lives of the sisters involving the father only when their lives somehow intersect. It's a sad story that can bring tears to the eyes of the reader. Like many historical novels of this period, it tells a story of how horrific it was to live under the cruel Nazis.
Kristin Hannah has written a really excellent fictional account of the cruelty and horrors eagerly committed by the Nazis in German-occupied France during WWII. The incredible courage and sacrifice of two estranged sisters are at the heart of a novel that begins when an elderly woman opens a trunk filled with memories. The characters are as well developed as the plot. I found this book to be absolutely riveting with a perfect, poignant ending. The inevitable comparison for me was to the equally compelling Suite Francaise by Nemirovsky.
Firstly, I must say this: I really wanted to love this book. As someone who's enjoyed Kristin Hannah in the past (ON MYSTIC LAKE, BETWEEN SISTERS), I was excited to get to THE NIGHTINGALE...only to discover that it's actually one of the most overrated books in history!
After reading several far more authentic WW2 stories in recent months (THE BRONZE HORSEMAN by Paullina Simons, THE LAVENDER GARDEN by Lucinda Riley, and even THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer) The Nightingale went down more like a Super Harlequin WW2 narrative--which explains the commercial fanfare as well. (It seems the average commercial U.S. reader loves to see themselves and overtones of the familiar rather generically reflected in what they read--they gobble it right up.)
In this story, France during WW2 bristles with far too much United States 2015. The prose and dialogue are far too modernized and fail at delivering true authenticity for the time and place. Never once did I feel I was actually in 1940s France. Not once did the sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, feel like actual French-born women. Usage of the French words for 'yes' and 'no' and 'mom' does not an authentic French characterization make!
Also, it was a pretty slow build for the first 300 pages, the war details felt too Wikipedia at times, and it was way too high on melodramatic, contrived coincidences for manufacturing the tension and plot twists. I found my eyes rolling whenever it happened--you could just see the author's hand forcing the conflict onto the page with convenient timings.
For the things I did appreciate: there were touching relationship arcs in the end and a couple of surprises I didn't expect, which kept it from feeling too predictable overall. But nevertheless, the problem was that the story never hooked me and I was never fully sold on Hannah's imaginary WW2 'Nightingale,' who we're supposed to believe was being hunted by the Nazis, but was never once referred to in French, which would've been Isabelle and Vianne's family surname!! Were the Nazis that dumb??
Further, I never really connected with Isabelle and really only felt for her through the pain of those who loved her, like her sister Vianne, whose character felt more authentic to me.
So all in all, do I think it's a bad book? No, I would recommend it to people on a steady YA diet, or readers who like romanticized, Americanized and modernized "let's play house" with war stories--and there clearly are plenty of them out there! But moi? J'ai besoin de ma fiction pour etre plus authentique que ca. ;)
I'd give it 3.25 stars.
Honestly? I could've spent the time re-reading a genuine masterpiece like THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, which, despite its length (and having a romance at the very heart of the story), never once felt like romanticized, Harlequin-esque, wartime commercial fiction. I'm just saying there's a difference, people. :-)
Sometimes you read a book and it's pretty much forgotten within a month or two. Sometimes you read a book and you know that its characters will stay with you forever, as if you knew them personally and cared about what happened to them. This is how I feel about Isabelle and Vianne, two sisters facing the cruelties and challenges of living in WWII Occupied France. One is highly motivated to work with the French Resistance and bravely helps downed British and American airmen. The other must share her home with two different Nazi officers, one somewhat kind and the other cruelly sadistic. The sisters each assist the Allies and Jewish families in their own courageous ways. Highly recommended reading!