Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale beat out many favorites to take home the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. Naturally this made me curious, especially since the book beat out the likes of both Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Kate Atkinson (A God in Ruins). I figured I was in for a somewhat tough and emotional read as the story takes place in France during World War II, and followed two sister as they both try to survive their home being occupied by Nazis. So I steeled myself and decided to dive right in, hoping that my discomfort would be outweighed by an excellent story.
The Situation: Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac are sisters living in France when World War II happens. They had lost their mother years before, and even though he was still alive, they had seemingly lost their father as well to the first world war. When the fighting was over, their father came back as a broken man, and instead of caring for his daughters after his wife's death, he sent them off to live with someone else while he lived in Paris. Vianne would grow up to be the stable, calm, reasonable one who would get married and start a family. Isabelle, forever a rebel, would get thrown out of boarding schools, finishing schools, and other institutions her father chose to put her in, always believing that he did not love her, and that her older sister did not have time for her. Then war breaks out and the Germans make their way into France, just as Isabelle has escaped from yet another school and made her way to her father's home in Paris, and life as everyone knows it changes dramatically.
The Problem: Vianne remains convinced that her husband will be home soon to once again lead her family during this difficult time. Isabelle remains cynical, or realistic, depending on how you feel, and believes that while it may seem futile, France should fight back instead of surrendering. After being rejected once again by her father, Isabelle finds herself living with her older sister as a Nazi soldier is assigned to live in the house. And while Vianne remains the more reasonable one, opting to keep her daughter safe over any ideas of a French resistance, Isabelle cannot help but fight and try to turn the tide of the war. As time goes on, and the Nazis grow in their brutality, each sister will find themselves making impossible decisions to keep themselves and those they love safe, because even a small decision like standing up for a neighbor or friend can prove dangerous under Nazi control.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set during WWII in occupied France. So yeah, it is grim. In the very beginning, France is not occupied yet, but the Germans are on their way and France is calling up their able bodied men to fight them. But most of the remainder of the book will take place after the French have surrendered and the Germans have made themselves right at home, commandeering resources, living space, and the best food and wine. Vianne will continue living in her home with her daughter and the German soldier who has been assigned to stay in her guest room. But Isabelle will continue to take greater and greater risks to spread anti-propaganda against the Nazis, and eventually rescue downed British and American airmen and assist them in crossing over into Spain, and eventually back to their homes. Naturally it is the story of the tragedies and atrocities of war, as well as a story or survival. But more than that, it is a story of what women can do and had to endure while the men are off fighting, especially in an occupied territory. While the British resisted and were bombed as a result, the French surrendered, but still suffered greatly under Nazi rule. Even though they didn't fight back, they endured ration cards that often didn't result in any meaningful sustenance, especially in the later years. And anything they had of any value was taken and used for the cause of the Nazis. It is a story of the war as it was in France, away from the front lines but still with the enemy close by.
My Verdict: While I will certainly be laying off of stories about WWII for awhile, I can see why this book took home the Best Historical Fiction award. The book is brutal and honest, but without being sadistic about it. And while Vianne and Isabelle are sisters, they are each different enough to have two completely different stories as they each handle the war in their own way. And the thing is, on the surface it seems like Vianne has chosen the smarter, safer, route. But the longer the book goes on the more the reader can see that in this war, in France, no option is really "safe," and any course of action will require the desire and ability to survive. The book doesn't romanticize the war, doesn't pretty it up in any way, but also doesn't bog the reader down in details so awful that turning the page would cause someone to flinch at what could possibly be coming next. Like the characters, I wanted the war to be over, and made a heavy sigh when I continued to read and realized that it wasn't. It is a history lesson many of us are tired of being given, but it needs to be learned.
Favorite Moment: Obviously, when the war ends and liberation comes. No question about it.
Favorite Character: Poor Sophie, Vianne's daughter, loses her childhood to the war and watches as her mother struggles to keep them safe and fed during the harsh winters of occupied France. She will grow up to be incredibly helpful and wise in those few short years, even though she has every opportunity to become resentful, selfish, and hard-hearted.
Recommended Reading: I recommend both Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Both more or less take place during WWII, but are set primarily in Britain.