by Kristin Hannah
Published 2015 by St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 440 pages
Dates read: January 1 - March 4, 2017
Because I enjoyed The Nightingale so much when I listened to it last summer, I recommended that my book club read it. We had a discussion about it in January, and I didn't feel the need to finish re-reading it by then because so much of the book had stuck with me and I wanted to take my time with it. The second time around, and this time actually reading it vs. listening to it, is just as amazing if not better. Perhaps I should say that the audio version does the written version justice.
Kristin Hannah does an amazing job telling the story of two young women, sisters, and what they've endured through WWII. So often we hear or read of the men who have gone away to war, but what of the women and children who were left behind? Hannah begins one of these tales by starting the story in 1995, when an elderly woman is packing up her things to move into a retirement home. We don't yet know who she is as she is going through the contents of an old trunk. As she comes across an old ID badge, she flashes back to 1939 Paris, France, just before her world is turned upside down by war.
The flashbacks focus on the older sister, Vianne - the rule follower, and the younger sister by about 10 years, Isabelle - the rebel. They share in the loss of their mother, yet that experience is also different - Vianne is about 14 and Isabelle is then 4 so she grows up resenting not remembering much about her. They're left by their father at a relative's home where they both feel abandoned.
Isabelle spends most of her life in boarding or finishing schools, being expelled from several because she doesn't adhere to authority and rules. When the war starts, Isabelle is unwilling to accept that France has surrendered and despite her sister's pleading for her to think rationally, and stay with her in the countryside after her most recent expulsion to stay safe, she makes her way through the wilderness to Paris where she hopes to find her father. She meets, and falls in love with, a man named Gaetan and his belief that the French can fight the Nazis from within France. She takes matters into her own hands regardless of what anyone tells her she can't do, as is her way. She joins The Resistance, an underground group that risks their lives to make a difference and help save as many others as they can.
While Isabelle is off working with the Resistance, Vianne and her young daughter, Sophie, are fighting their own battles at home with Antione off at the front lines. Months after he is called to duty at the start of the war, a German officer moves in to their home which is complicated in it's own way. Vianne and her neighbor and best friend since childhood, Rachel, are teachers at the local school. Rachel and her children are Jewish, and she loses her job along with many of the other Jewish residents in the area. Vianne witnesses the German officer rounding up many of those same Jewish residents onto trail cars, including Rachel and her children, except for her baby whom she leaves behind with Vianne. She doesn't know why or where her friend is being taken and we are left wondering with her if she will ever see her again. The war wages on with intermittent communication from Antoine, her father and Isabelle and another less kind German officer moves in with Vianne and Sophie.
Hannah makes you feel what the characters feel as if you are them and experiencing what they're experiencing. This is a story that takes place during one of the worst times in world history, and Hannah captures the wide variety of events and emotions that went along with it. For all of the hardships on the front-line battles and firefights, prison camps, starvation, sacrifice, grief, and heartache Hannah shows that there is also hope, resilience of the human spirit, love and survival. She leaves you wondering who survives and if Vianne and Sophie will get to see Antoine again, and if they will be reunited with Isabelle, and Rachel too.
As I mention in my first review, the ending brings so much closure for the reader. It is bittersweet and while there are many parts of the novel that are sad and heartbreaking, the ending is where you'll need the tissues the most as it comes back to 1995. We are shown the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, and most of all - love.
Rating: 5 out of 5