When you've been an educator in a small town, you have the pleasure of seeing former students become adult members of the community, sometimes even co-workers and neighbors. Of course many students move away, but surprisingly a strong number remain in or return to our cluster of villages and rural townships. I've run into one such student, now a mom and wife, at our local library on several occasions. I love that she points out how she NOW reads, something she did not enjoy doing in high school. I recently had a massage appointment at her spa; I had woken with a stiff neck and could not turn it more than an inch or two. I could not get in to see the chiropractor until the next day, but E. had a slot and I quickly took it. E. was an angel with healing fingers that day, and despite my pain, it was nice to catch up on her life. She also shared what she was reading and highly recommended THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristen Hannah.
I knew E. had our little library's copy of Hannah's new historical fiction, but I quickly put my name on the hold list and didn't have to wait too long. Set in what will become Occupied France, the novel begins in 1939 and covers the war year experiences of two sisters Vianne and Isabelle. The chapters alternate with the 1995 story of an American woman who is packing up her house to move into an assisted living facility, someone readers will assume has some connection to Vianne and Isabelle. Only near the end of the book will you learn her true identity.
World War II fiction abounds recently; it seems I could read a new one each week and you might expect the stories to become similar. While I have read several novels focusing on the civilians and how the war destroys any semblance of normal life, THE NIGHTINGALE remains distinctive.
Part of that reason is the unique family story of the novel. Vivianne and Isabelle had lost their mother when young girls, leaving them with only their father, a man who was so emotionally damaged by WWI that he sends his daughters away to the country. Vivianne, the older, a mere teen herself, is told to care for Isabelle. Vianne, quiet and reflective, buries her sorrow and finds comfort in a young man who will become her husband, but she cannot understand her little sister's loud demands and defiant ways. When war breaks out and Vianne's husband is drafted, Isabelle is suspended from yet another school. Her father does not want her in Paris and Vianne fears Isabelle's presence in the village would be dangerous. Soon the two sisters and their father make very different decisions about how to survive the occupation, each heroes in their own way.
I believe Kristin Hannah has surpassed all her other books with this title. The hardships of daily life in war time, the sister relationships, the father's grief, what constitutes bravery, and how one resumes a normal life after war -- there is a lot to discuss here.
Thanks, to E., for recommending the book.