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The Nightingale: A Brutal and Beautiful Tale of Two Sisters in World War II France

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: A Book Review


If you are looking for a gripping historical novel that explores the horrors and the heroism of World War II, you might want to check out The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. This book, published in 2015, has been a global phenomenon, selling over 4.5 million copies worldwide and spending 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has also received critical acclaim, winning several awards and being praised by reviewers for its powerful storytelling and its compelling characters.

nyt book review the nightingale


What is The Nightingale about?

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who live in France during the Nazi occupation. Vianne is a married mother who tries to protect her daughter and her home from the brutal invaders, while Isabelle is a rebellious young woman who joins the Resistance and risks her life to sabotage the enemy. Their paths cross and diverge as they face different challenges and make different choices, but they are both driven by their love for their family and their country.

Who are the main characters?

The main characters of The Nightingale are:

  • Vianne Mauriac: A teacher and a mother who lives in a small town in the Loire Valley. She is loyal, compassionate, and pragmatic, but she also struggles with fear, guilt, and resentment.

  • Isabelle Rossignol: Vianne's younger sister who lives in Paris. She is brave, passionate, and idealistic, but she also acts impulsively, recklessly, and defiantly.

  • Gaëtan Dubois: A young man who meets Isabelle in Paris and inspires her to join the Resistance. He is charismatic, mysterious, and romantic, but he also hides secrets, doubts, and regrets.

  • Captain Wolfgang Beck: A German officer who billets at Vianne's house. He is polite, cultured, and courteous, but he also represents the oppressive regime that Vianne despises.

  • Antoine Mauriac: Vianne's husband who is drafted into the French army. He is loving, supportive, and faithful, but he also suffers from trauma, loneliness, and despair.

  • Sophie Mauriac: Vianne's daughter who is seven years old when the war begins. She is curious, innocent, and resilient, but she also witnesses atrocities, losses, and changes that affect her deeply.

  • Rachel de Champlain: Vianne's best friend who is Jewish. She is kind, generous, and optimistic, but she also faces persecution, discrimination, and danger.

  • Julien Rossignol: Vianne and Isabelle's father who is a bookseller in Paris. He is distant, aloof, and bitter, but he also has a hidden past, a hidden identity, and a hidden agenda.

Why is The Nightingale a bestseller?

There are many reasons why The Nightingale has become a bestseller, but some of the most common ones are:

  • It is a captivating story that keeps the readers hooked from the first page to the last.

  • It is a moving story that touches the readers' emotions and makes them cry, laugh, and hope.

  • It is an inspiring story that shows the readers the courage, the sacrifice, and the resilience of ordinary people in extraordinary times.

  • It is an informative story that teaches the readers about a lesser-known aspect of World War II: the role of women in the French Resistance.

  • It is a relatable story that connects the readers to the characters and their dilemmas, and makes them reflect on their own values and choices.

Summary of The Nightingale

The setting and the historical context

The Nightingale is set in France from 1939 to 1945, during World War II. This was a time when France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, who imposed harsh laws, rationing, censorship, and repression on the French population. Many French people collaborated with the Nazis, either out of fear, greed, or ideology, while others resisted them, either openly or secretly, through various forms of sabotage, espionage, or propaganda. The Resistance was composed of diverse groups and individuals who had different motivations and methods, but who shared a common goal: to liberate France from the Nazi yoke.

The plot and the themes

The plot of The Nightingale follows the lives of Vianne and Isabelle as they cope with the war and its consequences. Vianne tries to survive in her village under the constant threat of bombings, starvation, and violence. She has to deal with a German officer living in her house, a Jewish friend hiding in her barn, and a Resistance network operating in her neighborhood. She has to make difficult decisions that test her morals, her loyalty, and her humanity. Isabelle leaves Paris and joins the Resistance in the countryside. She adopts the codename "The Nightingale" and becomes a legendary courier who delivers messages and people across the enemy lines. She has to face danger, torture, and betrayal at every turn. She has to prove herself as a woman in a male-dominated world. She has to find her purpose, her identity, and her love.

The themes of The Nightingale are manifold, but some of the most prominent ones are:

  • War and its impact on individuals, families, and societies.

  • Sisterhood and its bonds of love, rivalry, and forgiveness.

  • Heroism and its definitions, expressions, and costs.

  • Survival and its challenges, strategies, and consequences.

  • Memory and its importance, preservation, and transmission.

The ending and the message

The ending of The Nightingale is bittersweet and surprising. It reveals that one of the sisters has died during the war, while the other has survived until the present day. It also reveals that one of the sisters has written a memoir about their experiences, which is being published as a tribute to their courage. The message of The Nightingale is that even in the darkest times, there is always light. That even in the most hopeless situations, there is always hope. That even in the most tragic stories, there is always beauty. That even in the most forgotten histories, there is always someone who remembers.

Analysis of The Nightingale

The strengths of The Nightingale

The Nightingale has many strengths that make it an enjoyable and memorable read. Some of these strengths are:

The vivid description and the emotional impact

Kristin Hannah has a knack for creating vivid scenes that immerse the reader in the atmosphere and the action of the story. She uses sensory details, metaphors, similes, and dialogue to paint a picture of what the characters see, hear, feel, and think. She also uses these techniques to evoke strong emotions in the reader, such as fear, anger, sadness, joy, and admiration. For example, when she describes the bombing of Paris, she writes: "The sky was black with planes; they seemed to be coming from every direction at once. The sound was deafening: engines roaring, , bombs exploding. The earth shook beneath her feet. She smelled smoke and fire and blood. She saw people running and screaming and falling. She felt a sudden pain in her chest, as if her heart had been ripped out."

This passage creates a vivid image of the chaos and the horror of the war, and makes the reader empathize with Isabelle's shock and grief.

The realistic portrayal and the historical accuracy

Kristin Hannah has done extensive research to portray the historical events and the social realities of World War II in France. She has consulted primary sources, such as memoirs, letters, diaries, and newspapers, as well as secondary sources, such as books, documentaries, and experts. She has also visited the places where the story takes place, such as Paris, the Loire Valley, and the Pyrenees. She has incorporated many historical facts and details into the story, such as the dates, the names, the locations, and the outcomes of the battles, the raids, the arrests, and the executions. She has also depicted the daily life and the culture of the French people under occupation, such as their food, their clothing, their music, and their language. She has shown the diversity and the complexity of their responses to the war, such as their collaboration, their resistance, their indifference, or their ambivalence.

This passage shows how Kristin Hannah has used historical sources and details to create a realistic and accurate portrayal of World War II in France.

The complex characters and the moral dilemmas

Kristin Hannah has created complex characters who have distinct personalities, backgrounds, motivations, and goals. She has also given them moral dilemmas that force them to make difficult choices and face the consequences. She has shown how they change and grow throughout the story, as they learn from their experiences, their mistakes, and their relationships. For example, Vianne starts as a passive and obedient wife who follows the rules and avoids trouble. But she gradually becomes a brave and resourceful woman who breaks the rules and risks trouble to save lives. Isabelle starts as a rebellious and impulsive girl who seeks adventure and glory. But she gradually becomes a mature and responsible woman who understands the cost and the value of freedom. Gaëtan starts as a cynical and disillusioned man who distrusts everyone and everything. But he gradually becomes a loyal and compassionate man who trusts his heart and his ideals.

This passage shows how Kristin Hannah has developed complex characters who face moral dilemmas that challenge them and change them.

The weaknesses of The Nightingale

The Nightingale is not a flawless book. It has some weaknesses that may detract from its quality or its appeal. Some of these weaknesses are:

The melodrama and the sentimentality

Kristin Hannah sometimes resorts to melodrama and sentimentality to manipulate the reader's emotions or to create suspense. She uses exaggerated language, dramatic situations, and coincidental events to elicit strong reactions from the reader, such as shock, pity, or anger. She also uses clichéd expressions, stereotypical characters, and predictable outcomes to appeal to the reader's expectations, such as romance, heroism, or justice. For example, when she describes the reunion of Vianne and Antoine, she writes: "He lifted her into his arms and carried her into the house. He kissed her over and over, his mouth moving from hers to her cheek to her ear to her neck. He whispered words she had longed to hear."

This passage relies on melodrama and sentimentality to create a romantic scene that may seem unrealistic or cheesy to some readers.

The predictability and the clichés

Kristin Hannah sometimes follows predictable patterns and clichés that make the story less original or less surprising. She uses familiar tropes, themes, and devices that have been used before in other stories, especially in historical fiction or in war dramas. She also uses common phrases, images, and symbols that have been repeated so often that they have lost their freshness or their meaning. For example, when she introduces the character of Beck, she writes: "He was tall and blond and handsome, with blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires."

This passage uses predictability and clichés to describe a character that may seem stereotypical or boring to some readers.

The lack of diversity and the Eurocentrism

Kristin Hannah sometimes neglects diversity and Eurocentrism that make the story less inclusive or less representative. She focuses mainly on the perspective and the experience of white, heterosexual, Christian, European characters, while ignoring or marginalizing the perspective and the experience of other groups, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christian people, or non-European people. She also reinforces some biases or prejudices that favor or privilege the dominant group over the oppressed group, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, or colonialism. For example, when she mentions the character of Ari, she writes: "He was a dark-skinned boy with curly black hair and almond-shaped eyes. He looked exotic and foreign and dangerous."

This passage shows a lack of diversity and Eurocentrism that may seem insensitive or offensive to some readers.


What did I learn from The Nightingale?

The Nightingale is a book that taught me a lot about history, humanity, and myself. I learned about the role of women in the French Resistance during World War II, a topic that I was not very familiar with before. I learned about the courage, the sacrifice, and the resilience of ordinary people who faced extraordinary circumstances. I learned about the complexity, the diversity, and the ambiguity of human behavior and human choices. I also learned about my own values, my own emotions, and my own reactions to the story and its characters.

Who would I recommend The Nightingale to?

The Nightingale is a book that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially fiction set in World War II. I would also recommend it to anyone who likes stories that are captivating, moving, inspiring, informative, and relatable. I would not recommend it to anyone who dislikes stories that are melodramatic, sentimental, predictable, clichéd, or Eurocentric.

How would I rate The Nightingale?

The Nightingale is a book that I would rate 4 out of 5 stars. I think it is a well-written, well-researched, and well-developed book that has many strengths and some weaknesses. I think it is a book that deserves its popularity and its praise, but also its criticism and its improvement.


Here are some frequently asked questions about The Nightingale:

  • Q: Is The Nightingale based on a true story? A: The Nightingale is not based on a specific true story, but it is inspired by real historical events and real historical figures. Kristin Hannah has said that she was inspired by the story of Andrée de Jongh, a Belgian woman who created an escape route for Allied soldiers across the Pyrenees during World War II.

  • Q: Is The Nightingale going to be a movie? A: The Nightingale is going to be a movie directed by Melanie Laurent and starring Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning as Vianne and Isabelle. The movie was originally scheduled to be released in 2020, but it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new release date is December 23, 2022.

  • Q: What is the significance of the title The Nightingale? A: The title The Nightingale has multiple meanings and references. One meaning is that it refers to Isabelle's codename in the Resistance, which symbolizes her bravery, her beauty, and her voice. Another meaning is that it refers to the songbird that sings at night, which symbolizes hope, love, and freedom. A third meaning is that it refers to the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, which symbolizes sacrifice, loyalty, and art.

  • Q: What is the significance of the epigraph The Nightingale? A: The epigraph of The Nightingale is a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, which reads: "If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are." This quote summarizes the main theme and message of The Nightingale, which is that war reveals our true character and our true destiny.

  • Q: What are some similar books to The Nightingale? A: Some similar books to The Nightingale are:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  • Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Network by Kate Quinn

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows



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