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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review of Kristin Hannah's The Nightengale - very few spoilers

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:
in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” 

I can’t believe it, but shortly after starting this novel, I put it down in favor of reading A Game of Thrones (Book I). I liked the writing in The Nightingale; Kristin Hannah turns quite an exquisite phrase, but I guess it just didn’t grab my attention, or it wasn’t the right timing. When I picked it back up, it didn’t take me long to wonder why I had ever been less than intrigued with the novel in the first place. I want to make it clear: I highly recommend this book.

Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters who find themselves in the midst of Nazi-occupied France, initially react very differently to the occupation. Isabelle is a rebellious teen who joins the resistance without a second thought. Estranged from her father and alienated from her sister, she uses pure strength of character, determination, and hatred of Nazi ideology and actions as motivation to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. People underestimate her, and she uses this to her advantage and to the advantage of those whose lives she saves. Meanwhile, Vianne has a daughter to care for while her husband, Antoine, languishes in a P.O.W. camp. As two very different German soldiers billet with her family in turn, she complies at first, but ultimately risks not just her own life, but the lives of her children as well, as she adopts the son of a Jewish friend to save him from certain death. Vianne manages to save the lives of several other Jewish children during the war, too. Imagine what we could accomplish – in or out of war – if every one of us did our part to help our neighbors.

I have shared a few plot points, but I promise that they are not enough to ruin the really amazing moments in the novel (of which there are many). I have not explored what happens with Isabelle’s first love, Gäetan, or who narrates the novel. That’s right! Hannah doesn’t reveal which character the narrator is until the final moments of the book. This could become an annoying gimmick in less-skilled hands, but Hannah pulls it off brilliantly.

Here’s the thing: this book made me cry. It is touching. It is powerful. It is important, for most war stories do focus primarily on the actions of the men involved, but what of the other half of the population? Women did what they could. What they had to do. In the narrator’s words, “Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” 

This beautifully woven tale reflects the ways in which so many women persevered in the face of unimaginable horrors and how those who survived, “the lucky ones,” tried to return to “normal” after the war.

For a more official review, you can check out Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21853621-the-nightingale

To further whet your appetite, I have listed more of my favorite quotes from the novel here (all from The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah):
  • “But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” 
  • “Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.” 
  • “Love. It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between.” 
  • “Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.”
  • “Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.” 
  • “I know that grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.” 
  • “I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.” 
  • “You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge,” Mother said gently. “Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God—and each other and ourselves—in times as dark as these.” 
  • “It is not biology that determines fatherhood. It is love.” 
  • “Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.” 
  • “I belong to a generation that didn't expect to be protected from every danger. We knew the risks and took them anyway.” 
  • “It is easy to disappear when no one is looking at you.” 
  • “You are my sunlight in the dark and the ground beneath my feet.” 
  • “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt in this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” 
  • “She was so tired of being strong.” 
  • “A girl’s love for her father. Immutable. Unbearable but unbreakable.” 
  • “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.” 

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