The Nightingale — historical fiction with the feel of fact

I liked Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale well enough to recommend it to my Writers as Readers book club. I’d give it 4 or 4.5 stars* for creating such interesting lives for the sisters who are the main characters, and for telling such a believable tale of WWII. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in stories about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Here’s my book club report so you can see what other readers thought.

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale generated mixed reviews from Writers as Readers in August.
The WWII novel traces the paths of two sisters and their father during the German occupation of France. One sister, who stayed at home in the French countryside, ended up being forced to board two German officers of opposite dispositions. The other became involved in the resistance, traveling from Paris to Leon, on to Spain and back again, eventually being captured by the Germans. Their father, who also worked in the resistance, spent most of his time in Paris.
The title is both the nom de guerre of the sister in the resistance, and their family name, Rossignol, the French word for nightingale.
Structurally, Hannah put most of the action in the war, but a story arc from the “present” helped generate some mystery as to which of the sisters survived long after the war. For the war years, Hannah switched point of view from one sister to the other, showing both times when their lives intersected and when they separated. Some readers liked that approach, while others were distracted by it.
Each of the women struggled to deal with the challenges of the war in her own ways, and it is their differing choices that both unite and divide them. WaR readers said the sisters’ lives illustrated the themes of endurance and resistance, as well as responses to the horrors of war. Rape, murder, betrayal, and abandonment vied with loyalty and human kindness for the sisters’ hearts and minds.
As usual, WaR readers believed some things might have been cut. One reader suggested lopping off everything up to chapter 14. “I would have been so much more intrigued,” with the story, she said.
Another, who hadn’t finished the story, didn’t like the character of the older sister, but after some discussion admitted she might not have reached the point at which she might change her mind.
A third said she “didn’t want to finish it. I kept putting it off. I liked the characters.”
There was disagreement about whether either sister changed in the story. One reader argued that the older sister who stayed in the country during the war did not. “Some women don’t want to be liberated,” she said. “Maybe they’ll rise to the occasion, but they don’t want to.”
Another wondered, “How could (any woman) assuage a child’s fear when her own was straining at the leash?”
Elements of Hannah’s style appealed to several readers. One liked the description of a journey through the Pyrenees to Spain. “I could feel her cold, her exhaustion,” she said.
Another liked several turns of phrase, including, “Dried leaves scudded inside, dancing across the floor, plastering themselves like tiny black hands to the stones of the fireplace.”
In the end, several considered reading another of Hannah’s books, but the jury was hung as to whether everyone learned more about what to do or what to avoid in her own writing.

*2018 update: In my memory, I always think of this as one of my favorite books, so I think I have to update my earlier assessment to 5 stars.

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