Two Sisters, Many Kinds of Courage

The Nightingale: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah, (St. Martin’s Press), 448 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

The best way I can sum up The Nightingale is to say that it’s the novel Sarah’s Key should have been, but wasn’t. Both books depict the horrors of life in Nazi-occupied France. Both lean toward romance. What makes them different is the agency of the women in The Nightingale, as opposed to the women in Sarah’s Key, who seem to have their paths shaped by outside forces. There are outside forces aplenty in The Nightingale, but the central characters make decisions about how to respond to these forces. They can’t change their circumstances, yet they still manage meaningful choice of a sort.

The Nightingale focuses on a pair of sisters: Viann and Isabel. As the Nazi occupation begins, Viann focuses on protecting her family, while Isabel longs to be a heroine like Edith Clavell, whose biography she read as a child. The sisters have never been close, and the war increases tensions between them. Viann sees Isabel as impetuous, eager to take dramatic action that may have life-threatening consequences for those around her. Isabel sees Viann as a traitor to her nation, a woman making unacceptable compromises for the sake of her own safety.

In a way, both women are correct—but they’re also wrong. Over the years of the occupation, we see each woman surprising herself and coming to see the value of the other’s path, as well as her own.

This is one of those books for which I don’t want to provide too much summary. The novel is best read without knowing the course it will follow. I can, however, advise sticking with it through the occasional clichéd moments, which occur largely in the first few chapters. I can also advise reading it with tissues near to hand. This is the kind of book that leaves a reader in tears that mingle joy and sorrow.

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