We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.
We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.
The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.
This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.
Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.
I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.
In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.
The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.
When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).
Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.
The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.
The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”
And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?
Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.
The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.
I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.
It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.
This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.
This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.
This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.