I’m pretty picky about the WWII fiction I read. Probably because of my grandfather, who was a pilot during the war, and so I grew up with a direct, personal connection. It makes these books hard to read for me, and I almost always prefer the real accounts to those that have been fictionalized. But this is one of those WWII stories that is so highly rated, that so many of my reading buddies recommended to me, that I decided to give this historical fiction romance(?) featuring two sisters in occupied France a try. The sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, couldn’t be more different from one another, and it was interesting to see how these very different personalities handled the impossible situation they were put in. One joins the resistance, first because of a boy, and then, later, out of a genuine desire to aid her country, the other, a mother who keeps her head so far down in order to protect her daughter, that others are put at risk because of it. Ultimately, these sisters do the right thing, but there was one sister and her story, that I preferred over the other—even though one sister is based on the real-life hero, Andrée de Jongh. That aside, I struggled constantly with this book on many levels. Is this a case of “it’s me” and not the book? Let’s find out.
Let’s start with the positives. I liked that this story focused on occupied France. It was a refreshing account as you don’t typically see a lot of WWII historical fiction based there. I also liked that this book focused on the women affected by the war, those left behind as the soldiers left, and what their experiences were like. Often the sheer will to survive in these situations is heroic and doesn’t get talked about enough. Which is why I liked Vianne more than Isabelle. Vianne’s story is so tragically common, and yet so overlooked in the sea of horror that was WWII. Vianne is a young mother whose husband becomes a prisoner of war, and then her house becomes billeted by Nazi soldiers. The delicate balance of placating the enemy in order to protect her daughter was tense and harrowing and I vastly enjoyed seeing that, even if Vianne could be frustratingly naive and weak willed at times. I liked how the story hammered home that what these sister’s scarified saved lives and allowed for new families to be formed. That stuff always makes me teary because it’s so easy for me to see my grandfather in those situations. But, unfortunately, that was the end of my enjoyment when it came to “The Nightingale”.
I found Isabelle frustrating beyond belief. She’s incredibly reckless and impulsive, amazingly so for someone living in occupied France in a fictionalized little town that is apparently swarming with every type of Nazi soldier imaginable. She often puts her sister and her niece in extreme danger with little regard, or remorse for the consequences of her actions. Isabelle has no training beyond being stubborn, and yet becomes an instant savior literally overnight. I felt it cheapened the real experiences that Andrée de Jongh went through, who this character is supposed to be based on but the author never gives any mention to anywhere in her book, not even the forward or acknowledgements (at least not in the version I have). Isabelle always seemed to care more for the act of rebellion than actually helping people, which further did not ingratiate her to me as the story progressed. Speaking of this tiny town though, the author decided that this countryside town in France would not only experience every single horror that the Nazi’s had to offer, but the town, and Vianne and Isabelle, would experience all those horrors all at the same time. It was a really odd style choice, because the first 50% of this book is painstakingly slow… And then, suddenly, the entirety of the war crashes down on them all in the final third of the book, which can make it a difficult read in that section. But perhaps what bothered me most is that the author seems to subscribe to the idea of the clean Wehrmacht which is evidenced by the “kindly Nazi” featured in this novel. I’m sorry, but no. You can’t say this character, an actual Nazi soldier who WAS NOT a conscript, was innocent, or not responsible for his actions, when he’s standing at the train station with a whip herding Jews on to said train. The book was already mediocre to me before this, and then lost me completely at the introduction for the clean Wehrmacht.
I could go on when it comes to the issues I had, and the things I found to be problematic (the clean Wehrmacht aside, this book is cringey when it comes to French cliches. Everyone’s wearing berets and eating baguettes and drinking wine literally all the time). But this book has plenty of other reviews that point out these issues far better than I can, especially when it comes to all the historical inaccuracies about what France was like during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, like this review. But I also just did not like the characters much, and therefore could not enjoy the story and found the romance to be all around flat. I know so many people love this book, and it’s so highly rated everywhere, but I don’t understand it. I genuinely had so many issues with this book and the slow paced writing, and liked so little of it, that’s it’s getting a really low 2 stars from me. Hopefully this author’s other books are better.
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