The Nightingale is a book I’ll hold on to because I enjoyed quite a lot of it. On the other hand, I don’t plan on rereading it very often, because a certain major aspect of the story was fingernails-on-a-chalkboard grating. Too bad I couldn’t have the one without the other.
The novel starts with Vianne Mauriac, a sheltered housewife, saying goodbye to her husband, a postman. He’s leaving his wife and child to join the army, and given that this is France in the late 1930s, we know it’s not going to end well for his side. Soon the country is occupied and German soldiers are billeted in Vianne’s village, one of them staying in her house. She has to draw on the dwindling resources of her farm – and her own courage, which proves greater than she expects – to keep her daughter fed and safe, and to placate the occupiers.
Making Vianne’s life that much more difficult is her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. How I wish I could leave it at that without having to think of Isabelle to describe her for this review. She’s a stereotypical teenaged Mary Sue – belligerent, reckless, desperately in love with a bad boy she can’t have, and, of course, heartstoppingly beautiful. How beautiful? When two German soldiers spot a poorly disguised Englishman, they approach to question him. Isabelle interposes herself, smiling. Smitten, the Germans sit down to talk to her, all suspicion gone.
Vianne’s story was fascinating because she had to walk a fine line and because she didn’t automatically know who was right and who was wrong. Isabelle is a complete contrast to that. She goes out of her way to defy the Germans and is rewarded by being recruited into the French resistance. Perhaps they felt they had nothing to lose at that point. Then she starts leading downed airmen to safety, using the code name Nightingale. Her last name means nightingale, but it seems subtlety is as unknown to her as intelligence is to the Nazis.
Meanwhile, Vianne wages a quiet resistance of her own after her Jewish neighbor is deported, leaving a little son behind. Vianne takes him into her household, pretending he’s a relative, even though this puts her and her daughter at great risk. Especially after the German officer billeted with her is replaced by a sadist who despises French people and Jews alike, which raises the stakes considerably. What also kept me reading was the occasional chapter which shows that one of the sisters lived into old age and is remembering the war. The other sister didn’t make it, but it’s not until the end that we learn which of them survived.
There are problems in the story besides Isabelle, such as when the Nazi officer demands Vianne tell him whether the little boy staying with her is a Jew. There’s a certain way to determine whether a boy or man is Jewish, but the Nazi doesn’t seem to know about this. And yet there’s so much about the novel that’s good – Vianne’s struggle against manipulation and fear and despair, the descriptions of food and of the Loire Valley, and a few memorable quotes about the role of women during war, the women left behind, whose fight was so often overlooked.
This may be a flawed book, but if you can overlook that, there’s a lot to enjoy in the story.