The Nightingale

Puke (!)  in general and as far as any redeeming literary value,  but I have to say that with some qualifiers because there are a few interesting features to the novel – they’re just not at all literary.    Also,  and as a  disclaimer – I’m reading this for a reading group and not on my own because I had a feeling I’d react this way.

Anyway,  the pukey part:  The protagonists are two completely and 100% sympathetic young women who absolutely know “right” from “wrong” (to the thinking of 21st century US readers, anyway).   So when their grand old family home somewhere north of Paris is taken over by the occupying forces in the form of a Nazi commander in June of 1940,  they do what all good and true heroines do –  they rise to the occasion in beauty and bravery while sticking to the highest moral road.

Vienne Rossignol, the elder of  two  sisters,  is a homebody,  sweetly trying to protect herself and her child for Antoine, her devoted husband, who is so bravely fighting for France and then taken captive.   If she errs it’s out of fear and in order to protect her family and friends because the  “right” thing to do is to keep her child safe and to stay pure and faithful for her husband.

nighthanThe Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
2015/ 440 pages
read by Polly Stone 17h 26m
rating:  4 / historical romance

But Vienne’s  younger sister,  Isabel Rossignol,  is the rebellious one who is just infuriated at the injustices and when she gets a chance to join the Resistance she goes for it because she knows what’s “right.”  (Of course she’s following her heart, too.)   Shoot- even Sophie, Vienne’s 6-year old child,  knows what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”  and she actually scolds her mother.  (There’s a bit of Isabel in her, I think.)

The ratings for this book are incredible – (Goodreads – 121, 711 ratings for 4. 53 average – and Amazon’s are higher) so  it’s obviously got something going for it – the question is what???   Let’s go through the pluses and I’ll rant about the minuses after that.

1.   Historical fiction –  On the surface it would seem that there is no more history in this book than necessary,  but after some research I found mention of  the “Comet Line,”  an avenue of escape for Allied airmen via France and Spain who were downed in Belgium.  Andre de Jongh was an important woman in that effort: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrée_de_Jongh

Also –  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_military_administration_in_occupied_France_during_World_War_II

And “Operation Spring Wind (Spring Breeze)”  is historical. See:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vel%27_d%27Hiv_Roundup
or
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Drancy.html

And an historical resistance fighter with some resemblance to Isabel:
London’s Daily Mail / Feb 3 2009: 

There’s a bit more  – Ravensbrück –  etc. – but one doesn’t read this book for the history  – the basic story is romance in wartime.

However. the tale does show quite well how the stuff of history books weaves itself into the lives of the common people.  When historical fiction does this it can really shine, but …   hmmm….

2.    The plot:  There are two fairly believable and interwoven plot lines,  one involving Vienne, the other involving Isabel.   Vienna’s chapter show her doing what she has to do to save herself and her daughter,  her friends and their children.  Isabel’s sections show her  to be far more active in the Resistance,  directly assisting the allies – or has she simply followed her heart?  (sigh)

There is considerable tension in the situation itself – what will those sometimes clean soft-spoken Nazi soldiers do?  What will the other Nazi soldiers do?  Will our protagonists get caught?  We know how WWII ends but we also know there was a huge personal and emotional toll.  The tension gets quite high and  Hannah allows the situation and unfolding of events to provide the tension with virtually no foreshadowing except for the frame story mentioned in the next section.

3.  Structure –  The chapters alternate between the two protagonists which increases the tension.  Other than that the tale has a  linear structure which is probably appropriate.  There is a frame story involved here – the tale opens in the US circa 1995,  where one of the protagonists is alive and well albeit older.   The three or four brief sections allocated to this woman add great texture and it works wonderfully well definitely adding tension through structure – they  keep the reader reading – who is that woman?  Which one survived?

4.  The character development is pretty standard – two young women

yelstars

French Jewish women wearing yellow stars

who are as strong as the times require.  Both are basically  “good” French Catholic girls – one is rebellious in the sake of justice or the other keeps hearth and home as best she can for her family.

5.  Finally,  this is a basic romance and it’s rather obvious from the set-up with two young women, both without men,  and plenty of young men in their lives.   Sure enough – although the plot doesn’t totally revolve around romantic and family relationships,  that aspect is far more than tangential.

** I hope I’ve caught the basics of what so many readers found so wonderful.   I did NOT feel that way so that’s the end of the good stuff.

Unrelated to the literary qualities of the book itself is the issue of the narrator’s voice.  It’s whispery and very feminine with a dash of a French accent.  (ugh – sigh)

** My View ** :

Unfortunately,  Hannah has chosen to present this already rather trite situation (with a few exceptions) in a generally  predictable way, considering the characters,  I didn’t come across a really original twist in the mess.  (Not a big one anyway – not even medium-sized.)

But what really killed it for me was the lack of serious literary qualities. The  narrative is ridden with clichés and uses only a limited vocabulary. There are a lot of “comfort words”  and clichéd phrases given to the descriptions of homey French kitchens, cooking and food – feeling “real” is prime.  Even in the more “exciting” parts the adjectives are virtually nonexistent and when they are used it’s more cliché –  “rocky, treacherous mountainside” ?  –  “a yawning black cave”?  –

registeringdetainees

registering detainees

** *  Trying to see the good side of stuff I can see where this makes it a perfect read for a group of English language learners.  (Yes, we need books like this for them.)

5. The character development of the characters is basically surface – there is  little to no complexity or texture in Isabel but perhaps Vienne is a bit more complex.  They go through incredible changes but they always seem to act predictably within the scope of their own character.

6.  The themes are basically rather  juvenile:  Anti-Semitism is wrong.  War is sometimes necessary for defense and resistance.  Women are as strong and brave as they need to be.   Love will out – the romance – yuk! .  Yup.  My sis-in-law would adore it.

That’s it folks – I’m glad readers who loved it felt that way,  maybe they learned some history or thought it was a good page-turning yarn,  don’t know.   For myself,  sometimes reading a work general fiction with limited literary appeal makes me understand what it is I appreciate about works like HHhH (another historical fiction about WWII) or .