When a Book Gives Lots of Feels: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

By Thursday, February 11, 2016 ,

I recently read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Occasionally, a book will provoke a lot of conflicting emotions, and this was one of them. It’s a masterfully told story set in the difficult backdrop of Nazi-occupied France and focuses on two sisters faced with impossible choices as World War II escalates.

The elder sister, Vianne, sees her beloved husband off to war and lives in uncertainty of his return. Every day becomes a fight to survive and protect her young daughter. Nazi soldiers billet at their house, food and heat run short, and friends disappear. Meanwhile, younger sister Isabelle can’t bear to stand by as her country crumbles under Nazi tyranny. She joins the undercover French Resistance and her life becomes a life of constant running, code language, and secrets. Both women represent two different ways of striving to survive unbelievable hardship, and their courage is astounding. People need to read this book. You will gasp and cry and stare in horror, but you’ll also be touched and forced to consider difficult and necessary questions. Here’s a glimpse of why it’s so worth reading and why it gave me all the imaginable “feels.” 

It’s Heavy 
This is a given for any realistic portrayal of World War II, but The Nightingale might be the most graphic and difficult fictional depiction of it I’ve ever read. The violence, manipulation, and terror of Nazi occupation are not sugarcoated, making the book extremely hard to read at times. While Isabelles side is more suspenseful and gripping since shes living in constant secrecy, Vianne’s side is perhaps more emotionally taxing since she’s in the thick of everyday life in a Nazi-controlled region. I didn’t know much of this perspective on the war, so reading about it was as informative as it was horrifying. Vianne has Jewish friends in her community, which has frightening implications throughout the story, and Nazi control reaches its cruel fingers into the very food the people can eat and the time they go to bed. The situations forced upon the French were truly reprehensible and unfathomable, and I walked away from the book with a newfound respect for the people who survived it all.
Photo Credit: Pixels Talk

The Choices Forced on Vianne and Isabelle are Literally Impossible 
What do you do when faced with the situations Vianne and Isabelle go through in this book? One critical review I read on the back of the book cited a historian that said this time period was filled with “choiceless choices.” It’s an apt description. Today, we can scarcely conceive the trials portrayed in this book. Without giving away anything major, here are a few examples of them. 

When a Nazi soldier arrives at Vianne’s home and announces he’s moving in, what is she supposed to do? What choice does she have when she and her daughter are literally starving, and that Nazi soldier shares food with them, unbeknownst to his superiors? Trust an enemy or feed her daughter? What is Isabelle to do when she has a chance to help wounded Allied airmen? Lead them to safety or risk discovery by the Nazis and consequently face torture and death? How should Vianne react when Jewish children in her town are suddenly alone after their parents have been sent to concentration camps? If she does nothing, the children will die, but if she tries to help, she and her daughter could die if the Nazis find out. 

It Makes You Examine Yourself
As I read about those kinds of situations, I wondered so many times how I would have reacted in them. Vianne and Isabelle have starkly opposite personalities and I found them both frustrating at different times in how they handled things, but by the end of the story, there is no doubt that they are both heroes in their own ways. From the other side of that time in history, it’s easy as a reader to want them to take specific actions, but the story makes you realize that in many cases, the people in the middle of it had no idea what was coming for them until it was already upon them. And it made me wonder what I would have done. Would I have had the courage? Would I have summoned the strength to face that kind of unimaginable brutality and trial? I hope and pray that I would. 

This book is heavy. Difficult. Heartbreaking. But it’s riveting, suspenseful, and a deeply moving testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. It’s a needed portrayal of a wicked point in history that we must remember, lest we forget and let it happen again. Read The Nightingale. I closed it with tears in my eyes, but satisfied and profoundly touched.

Have you read The Nightingale? Tell me what you thought! I'd love to discuss!

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  1. I'm right there with you. So many parts where I was crying. So many emotions while reading this book. The author did an incredible job tackling such a horrifying situation. I still think about the characters.

    1. Right, Jamie?! I had trouble getting my head around a lot of the situations in it! The author did such a great job with all of it. I cried so many times too.

  2. I saw this book pop up on Goodreads recently and was wondering if it was any good. Have you read "All the Light we Cannot See"? I was wondering how they compared in intensity.

    1. I highly recommend it, Emily!! As intense as it is, it's an excellent story and so gripping and suspenseful. And yes, I have read All the Light! I think The Nightingale is certainly more graphic, but the writing styles of the two are so different that it's hard to compare them in some ways. But I'd say both do an amazing job of drawing you into the stories they tell and getting you inside the characters' heads. Both are superb books for sure!