Ever since their mother’s death years ago, Vianne and Isabelle have known struggle and heartbreak. Sent away to boarding school by their father, whose spirits faltered after fighting in World War I and losing his wife, the girls clung to each other until Vianne got pregnant and married her boyfriend, Antoine. Isabelle, cast out by both her father and sister, bounces from school to school because her rebellious spirit is no match for the rules and restrictions imposed on her by school administrators. At the outbreak of World War II, Vianne and her daughter Sophie bid farewell to Antoine, who joins the military. Vianne, used to Antoine being the head of the household, worries about her ability to keep her home and family safe when the Germans occupy France. Expelled from yet another school, Isabelle seeks refuge in Paris with her father but finds him as cold and distant as ever. Isabelle hopes to help her father run his bookshop, but he refuses her offer of assistance and sends her packing to Isabelle’s home. The sisters’ fraught relationship remains as tense as ever, and the terrors of war do nothing to help their fractured bond.
Once reunited, the sisters’ personalities immediately clash. A German soldier forcibly quarters himself at Vianne’s home, and headstrong Isabelle makes her displeasure known. Vianne, terrified Isabelle’s obvious derision for the Captain will put Sophie at risk, takes great pains to accommodate the enemy. Feeling useless and confined, Isabelle finds an outlet for her passionate anti-occupation beliefs by helping the French Resistance distribute pamphlets urging the French to fight back against their German overlords. It is dangerous but thrilling work for Isabelle and she quickly climbs up the ranks. Vianne, meanwhile, develops an unlikely friendship with the Captain. He claims to miss his family and brings home extra rations of food to keep Sophie and Vianne better fed than their neighbors. Vianne appreciates the gesture while also being aware that her actions are traitorous. Isabelle, unable to compromise her morals for the safety of her family and herself, decides to leave Vianne’s home to take a more active role in the Resistance.
Through the war, the personality traits that caused the sisters to clash throughout their lives will prove essential to their survival. Will they survive the war and mend their strained relationship?
The Nightingale was a touching story about relationships between sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and children, friends, and enemies. It’s also about the impossible choices people face during wartime. Standing up for what is right is something we learn throughout our lives, but what would you do if being outspoken could put your family in danger? Vianne and Isabelle take very different courses to solve this dilemma, and both become heroes despite their differences. For those of us who have never lived in an occupied territory during wartime, it’s easy to take war stories for granted. We know wartime is terrible in an abstract sense, but it feels like a stretch to connect to the hardships of war. The Nightingale brings the daily hardships and losses of the women left during war to life with great detail. I could feel the physical and emotional pain of Vianne and Isabelle as they pushed themselves to the limit to fight for their causes. I felt their constant fear of being discovered by the Nazis and having their lives torn apart. The Nightingale is an unflinching and emotional glimpse at how the horrors of war can inspire the best in people, no matter how much their personalities and values differ.
Rating: 4 out of 5 butterfly macarons