The Nightingale checked out from the library the first time, I didn't put a high enough priority on it in my reading queue, and so I was only on page 96 when it had to go back to the library (I know this because I made a note of it so I'd know where to pick it back up when I got it back). Being a very popular book, I had to wait through another long list of people before it was finally my turn again. And you better believe that when I had it in my hands again, I made a point of finishing it.
Obviously I found the first ninety-six pages interesting enough that I was willing to return to it after a month-long break, in part because a couple of my friends knew I was reading it and asked how I liked it and I wanted to be able to talk to them about it, but it wasn't completely gripping. Once I finally got it back though, I found the final three hundred pages much more engrossing than the first hundred and flew through the rest of it.
I wouldn't necessarily say I came away feeling satisfied, but it was one of those books I enjoyed being in the middle of (apparently, since I was technically reading it for two months).
The story centers around two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Although most of the story takes place during World War II, the reader gets some back story (mainly about their strained relationship after their mother dies and their father sends them away) and some glimpses into the future in 1995 when one of the sisters (it's not clear at first which one) is confronted with the past she's tried so hard to forget.
Vianne and Isabelle were never close--not in age (there's a gap of about ten years), temperament, or ability. When their father basically stopped being a father, Vianne met Antoine, whom she later married, and Isabelle got passed around from boarding school to boarding school, after getting kicked out of each one. When they hear the first rumblings of war, Vianne's first reaction is to pull her husband and daughter close and never let them go whereas Isabelle wants to join the resistance and let Germany know that they can't have France without a fight.
The war changes both of them. Vianne is forced to billet a German officer and suffers extreme deprivation as the war gradually strips the country of all its resources. Turns out, she's much tougher than she realized. Isabelle, meanwhile, joins an underground group distributing anti-Germany propaganda and eventually earns the nickname "Nightingale" as she smuggles downed Ally airmen over to Spain where they can rejoin their armies. She is extremely brave but also vulnerable.
At one point, Vianne visits Mother Superior at the convent because she is so worked up with guilt over a decision she made that negatively impacted one of her dearest friends. I love the advice Mother Superior gives her: "Don't think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you."
This idea of choosing your sacrifices definitely becomes a theme throughout the book. As you can imagine with WWII as the backdrop, there are some (actually, a lot of) hard, heavy moments. Over and over again, Vianne and Isabelle make decisions that risk their own safety and that of their loved ones. The options they're given are usually impossible choices: they have to risk one thing to protect something else which in turn puts something else at risk. These choices are completely overwhelming, and I kept wondering what I would do in their place; the very thought made me sick.
Unfortunately, as with many WWII books, this one left me feeling weary and depressed. The story gets progressively darker, and by the end, I couldn't handle anymore. There isn't a lot of actual warfare, but the way the German officers took advantage of the French people and the unwarranted violence and arrests and the horrendous treatment of Jews and the sickening torture meted out to prisoners of war was plenty difficult to read without going onto a single battlefield. When I have enough space between books like this one, I forget the details of WWII and how many people were senselessly killed. So then when I pick one up again, it's like I'm learning about it for the first time all over again, and I honestly can't believe that these kind of atrocities happened on such a wide scale and not very many decades ago.
I have such conflicted feelings about this particular story. I loved the perspective of both sisters and seeing how they served their country in very different, but equally courageous, ways. I thought the love story between Isabelle and Gaëtan was sweet but also very dramatic, especially at the end. I also thought there were a few too many coincidences at the very end when the story moves back to 1995. Too many characters miraculously showed up, and it felt a little unrealistic.
Shortly after I finished this book, I watched the movie Life is Beautiful for the first time. It's one of Mike's very favorite movies, but I kept resisting because I knew it would be too sad. He kept assuring me, "No, no, it's inspiring. There will be some sad parts but overall, it's really uplifting." So I watched it and by the end, my tears were flowing without restraint (that little boy with those bright eyes!), and I don't think I would have used the word "uplifted" at all. This book had nothing in common with that movie except that they're both heartbreaking, and that's what you have to expect from a WWII story. That war touched millions of lives with sadness.
Content note: Violence, immorality, and rape are all a part of this story. It could have been a lot more graphic, but it's still there and very disturbing. There's also a little bit of language.