The Nightingale is a choice summer read, offering a tale set in WW2 France complete with spies and intrigue and family relationships torn apart by war.
My husband heard me crying as I reached the last page of The Nightingale and sent our sheepdog upstairs to comfort me. The novel’s end wasn’t sad or depressing, but rather richly rewarding—the kind that makes a person cry.
Author Kristen Hannah’s inspiration for this story snuck up on her. After reading about a Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France, rescuing Jewish children and Allied airman, Hannah was so struck by the courage and heroism that she asked herself, “When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life—and more importantly, my child’s life—to save a stranger?” which is just what Vianne Mauriac must determine.
The Nightingale actually begins in 1995 told in first person by a character whose identity is a mystery. The opening of an attic trunk prompts the remembrance and return to WW2 France, and a tale told in third-person by sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac.
Vianne Mauriac’s husband Antoine has been called to the Front leaving her alone with their young daughter. Conditions worsen as the two run out of food and money and they must board the enemy: a German officer, forcing Vianne to make horrible choices with catastrophic consequences.
Whereas Vianne is a rule follower and dependent on others, her restless younger sister Isabelle is an independent rebel. In the course of her travels she falls in love with a resistance fighter and her impulsive actions intersect the lives of Vianne’s family and also put loved ones at risk.
These two sisters, estranged from one another and their war-scarred father, are forever altered by the war and the decisions they make to survive. Their mistakes demand healing and atonement. These themes of sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and the resiliency of family, make this a work of beauty in an ugly world. This is the second novel by Hannah that I have read (Winter’s Garden) and both are titles I would call “Readeemable.”
While on a college tour with my daughter, I splurged on a Mudslide Brownie topped with pecans and caramel. Though it promised to be delicious, instead it tasted like Kraft caramel and boxed cake. I ate it anyway.
But I won’t finish a book that’s dry, tasteless, and unoriginal. To get to the last page, it must be deliciously satisfying. Anything less than stellar here? Yes. Because Hannah’s language and sensory details are so beautiful, poor editing sticks out like a sore thumb. I used the cliche “sore thumb” on purpose just like Hannah used “after what felt like an eternity.” Similarly, Vianne “tented her eyes” was a lovely description until it appeared three times by page 63, and Hannah’s erroneous ages of characters also disrupted the flow and eloquence of her prose, causing me to re-read that section for comprehension. Do these editing oversights spoil the novel? Not for me. In fact, I underlined half of the first page because of its descriptions and definitions, including the narrator’s observation, “The past has a clarity I can no longer see in the present.”
A little more clarity in editing would have perfected the novel but it remains a Readeemaby wonderful read and a choice novel for this summer.
The Nightingale Book Club Questions
1. Considering Isabelle and Vianne, would you rather be loved, admired, or known?
2. How does war change Julien, Vianne and Isabelle?
3. How do the sisters’ weaknesses became strengths?
4. How did War change their definition of love?
5. On page 43, Isabelle states that there are different types of prisons. How are characters imprisoned and by what?
6. Was the initial thesis statement on page 1 answered? “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
7. Who did you think was the first-person narrator? Did this change as you read the novel?
8. What motivates Isabelle? What motivates Vianne?
9. The Mother predicts Isabelle will have a crisis of faith. (p. 126) Does she?
10. How does Sarah’s fate change Vianne’s parenting?(p. 264-266)
11. Which character can you relate to?
12. Which characters choose forgiveness and what is the result?
13. In what ways do Isabelle and Vianne long to be like the other and how does this make them two halves of a whole?
14. Regarding love, Antoine says, “It’s not forgetting we need…..It’s remembering…(p. 397) – What does he mean?
15. How had the two boys both broken and saved Vianne?
16. How do the mistakes of each character change them. What do we do with our mistakes and how do they change us?
17. How does the definition of love on page 428 resonate with you?
It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him. All her life she had waited---longed for—people to love her, but now she saw what really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it.
18. Find one description you enjoyed. Here are a few of mine!
“Time was the one luxury no one had anymore. Tomorrow felt as ephemeral as a kiss in the dark.” (p. 316)
“with eyebrows that grew faster than a lie and a voice like a foghorn.” (p. 14)
“Sadness and loss were drawn in with each breath but never expelled.” ( p. 401)
Isabelle had traded kisses with boys as if they were pennies to be left on park benches and lost in chair cushions—meaningless.” (p. 57)
19. Consider these quotes and what they mean:
“Love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” (P. 410)
“Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you.” (p. 126)
“Prayers and faith will not be enough. The path of righteousness is often dangerous.” (p. 127). What does Mother mean? How is this a foreshadowing?
“I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.” (p. 438)
“We are all fragile, Isabelle. It’s the thing we learn in war.” –Julien (p. 199)
“And this wasn’t the end. She had to remember that. Each day she lived there was a chance for salvation. She couldn’t give up. She could never give up.” (p. 380) --Isabelle on the way to Ravensbruck.
BOOK CLUB RECIPES for The Nightingale
Menus for your bookclub or dining pleasure.
Spread a blanket and have a simple picnic from one of the following menus from pages 8, 14, 60, 85.
Double cream cheese
Purchase Caneles for dessert – they look and sound sooo delicious!
“vanilla-rich cream center and crispy, slightly burned-tasting exterior….”
For a more formal meal or a Book Club Potluck, have each reader make one of the following items from the menu on page 10 (links to recipes below)
Roasted Pork with bacon
Apples glazed in rich wine sauce
Fresh peas with tarragon
Dessert - ile flottante with rich crème anglaise
Links to Recipes:
Roasted pork with bacon
Apples glazed in rich wine sauce
Fresh Peas with Tarragon
ile flottante with rich crème anglaise ( a few choices!)