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I’ve written about my regard for Kristin Hannah‘s novels before. The last one I read and reviewed was Night Road, and we also reviewed Fly Away in 2013. Hannah has a way with contemporary family stories. She writes deeply emotional women’s fiction with great characters, usually facing loss or tragedy. This year she brings those elements to historical fiction for the first time.
The Nightingale takes place in France during World War II. It follows the women (and children) left behind after the German invasion, after the men went to war, many to POW camps. There are so many truly great novels that take place in this time and place. I think of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky or last year’s All the Light We Cannot See. What I like about The Nightingale is its accessibility and appeal. It involves two sisters, the younger an impetuous older teenager who joins the resistance. At first she does it out of defiance and boredom. But she matures, and holds to her course even after she realizes how much she is risking–even losing the great love of her life.
I was occasionally frustrated by a lack of detail (I wanted to know more about day-to-day life in France at this time) or because the author sometimes skips weeks or whole seasons from one chapter to the next. At the same time, both keep the action and the emotional arc of her characters moving forward at a good pace. Again, an advantage for most teen readers. So I wholeheartedly recommend this for school libraries and other teen collections.
Hannah is known for her popular contemporary novels; with The Nightingale she extends her range into historical fiction. This is the story of two sisters who come of age during the World War II Nazi occupation of France. Viann Mauriac is the responsible one; she lives in the Loire Valley countryside near the small village of Carriveau with her husband Antoine and daughter, Sophie. Viann’s younger sister Isabelle Rossignol is the flighty one, always running away from school. Their father returned from the first world war damaged, unable to love, leaving them to take care of each other. After the German occupation of Paris, Isabelle, still in her teens, throws herself into the resistance, eventually leading grounded British and American airmen again and again over the Pyrenees to safety in Spain. She also falls in love with a fellow resistance fighter, and recklessly brings danger to her father and sister. Meanwhile, Viann does everything she can to keep her daughter safe after Antoine becomes a prisoner of war and a high-ranking German officer is billeted in their home. A contemporary framing device adds suspense and mystery to the fates of the sisters and the people they love, in a story that highlights the unsung women of the French resistance. This is women’s fiction at its most affecting, and teens looking for a romantic, suspenseful, and heartrending read will not be able to put it down. VERDICT While not as literary as other World War II favorites, such as The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Knopf, 2010) or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014), this is a deeply emotional, fast-paced reading experience.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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