In my car yesterday, a week after I finished this book, I thought of a scene – just a hug between two characters – and I started to cry. It had been a week since I’d turned the last page, and it was still with me. A week! I’ll be the first to admit that I get swept into fiction like it is my own life. I am quick to laugh and weep at movies and books. But typically, when the credits roll or when I’ve reread the acknowledgment section for the final time, they let me go, and my real life becomes my real life again. The Nightingale did not let me go.
The book begins at the start of WWII with two sisters: young, impetuous Isabelle who is kicked out of finishing school to live with her father in Paris and careful, rule-following Vianne who lives happily in the French countryside with her husband and daughter. But when Paris is bombed by the Germans, Isabelle flees the city to live with her sister. As the atrocities of the war come closer and closer to their doorstep, both women struggle to navigate what is right, what is wrong, and what they are willing to do to keep these separate.
The most compelling aspect of this book to me was each character’s struggle with her “choiceless choices”, a term coined by Lawrence L. Langer, a scholar of Holocaust literature. Vianne, with a Nazi billeting under her roof, is forced to do what she must to keep her daughter safe and decide what she is willing to do to help preserve a world that is worth living in. Meanwhile, Isabelle must shed her immaturity fast to make herself an asset to the French resistance rather than a liability. The two story lines intertwine and barrel toward the end of the war with an energy and tension that made my heart race and kept me up way past my bedtime just to see what happened next.
I’ll end with one of many powerful quotes from The Nightingale that moved me and made me think about the times we are living in today. “…Love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” There are many reasons to read this book – it’s entertaining and beautiful, well-written and emotional – but perhaps one of the most important reasons is that we can learn from it. With all the passions that divide us now, we must always remember that love has to be stronger than hate. Because if we act out of love, we cannot be wrong.
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