Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Nightingale, Yes it Pulls at the Heartstrings

Product DetailsThe '40's, the era of World War II, has always held an inordinate fascination for me, the clothes, the music, the literature and film. With the demise of so many members of the World War II generation, interest seems to have spiked and taken on a new urgency. But when a friend whose judgment I trust recommended Kristin Hannah's new book, "The Nightingale,"  about two French sisters living under the Vichy government, I thought, "could there possibly be anything new under the sun to say about this time in history?" It turns out that there isn't.

Now let me admit right up front that, yes, I cried toward the end of the novel, laughing at myself for being so easily manipulated. Just because a book isn't that well written doesn't mean that it can't hold your interest and even pack a punch. Though not original, the set up works. An elderly woman, preparing to sell her home and move to an assisted living facility, uncovers long-forgotten mementos in the attic, causing a flood of memories that had been too painful to share. Now, we learn about the sisters:

Vianne, the elder, follows the rules, keeps her head down, and stays out of trouble. She marries Antoine, her childhood friend and lover, pursuing a domestic idyll that allows no room for her younger sibling. Isabella is rebellious and independent by nature, managing to get herself kicked out of several schools, dreaming of a life lived out loud. The war offers her that opportunity.

History tells us time after time how many citizens of Germany, France, and Italy, underestimated the power of Hilter's reach. Even as they were packing suitcases and fleeing Paris, many thought they'd be back home within weeks. The years-long, horrific siege of France and its terrifying effect on the people comes through in Ms. Hannah's descriptions of the day to day lives in the small towns and villages like Carriveau where Vianne teaches school, raises her daughter, and waits for her soldier husband's return. In fact, Hannah's depictions of the hunger, cold, and deprivation of wartime France represent the most powerful sections of the book.

I suspect that most of us wonder at times how we would have responded if faced with similar circumstances. Could we stand up to the tyranny of having the enemy confiscate our homes, our lives? Would we speak out against the violence perpetrated upon our neighbors because of their religion? What inner fortitude turns one person into a collaborator and another into a resistor?

Herein lies my problem with "The Nightingale." There is absolutely no backstory that would remotely lead us to think that sixteen year old Isabelle Rossignol could transform overnight from a bratty schoolgirl to a woman who could lead downed Allied pilots over the French Pyrenees mountains to safety in Spain. All a reader can do is suspend disbelief, roll with the story, and try to overlook the more egregiously inept metaphors (a lanky young man resembled a comma - twice!)

Now, if you crave good historical fiction that's centered around the Nazi era and the French resistance, may I suggest a short list of some of my favorite novels, beautifully executed, and in the case of "All the Light We Cannot See," transcendent. First try anything by Irene Nemerovsky, then move on to the Marian Sutro series by Simon Mawer which includes "Trapeze," and "Tightrope." Take a look at Sebastian Faulks' "Charlotte Gray," and of course, de Rosnay's "Sarah's Key."

More like Kristin Hannah's book might be JoJo Moyes' "The Girl You Left Behind," or Anita Shreve's aptly named "Resistance." No matter what your tastes, happy reading!


Malcolm Campbell said...

I've been considering this book. Now I know I need to read it. Enjoyed your review.

Sallyb said...

Thanks so much Malcolm. It's a bit melodramatic but, in the end, it works. Let me know what you think.