By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, February 2015
About the Book
In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.
France, 1939. In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France … but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can … completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol’s father returns from the Great War a changed man. After their maman dies, the girls are left with a cold, distant father and must make their own ways in the world. Viann falls in love, marries, has a daughter, and sets up life as a housewife in the Loire Valley. Isabelle is the troublemaker, bouncing from boarding school to convent, each of which throws her out due to her rebellious ways.
When the Nazis arrive in Paris, Isabelle’s father sends her to the country to be with her sister in safety. But Isabelle chafes under Vianne’s roof where they must billet a German captain and follow the rules laid down by the invaders. Isabelle forces herself into the French resistance, initially handing out pamphlets and sending secret messages. She graduates to more dangerous work when she takes on the role of “the Nightingale” and helps downed British and American pilots, setting off on foot and taking the men across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain. Isabelle risks everything to thwart the Nazis, while at home in the country, Vianne and her daughter starve as their Jewish friends are deported and families are torn apart.
I should begin by saying that I listened to this book on Audible, narrated by Polly Stone. I believe this novel to be solid historically speaking, but I found it positively glacial when it came to plot pacing. Some of that may be due to the narrator. When Audible narrators speak quite slowly, as Ms. Stone certainly did, I feel like the momentum usually suffers. Despite the slow narration, the plot doesn’t gather steam until the very end or vary from a pattern of repeated, worn out themes. Even the scenes which should be more suspenseful—such as the times Isabelle and the pilots escape the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees—the plot merely plods along. Ms. Stone treats it like reading a list of ingredients (and her British accents are truly cringeworthy), and the result is clichéd and difficult to get through.
The story trips along like one long laundry list of repeated events from each sister’s perspective. For Vianne it’s starving, illness, the deportation of neighbors, caring for Jewish children, and housing Nazis. These themes cycle over and over with same plot, different people. The German captain dies and is replaced by an SS officer—more of the same. For Isabelle it’s coded messages, saving pilots, and a tepid romance with a fellow freedom fighter. Isabelle is incredibly naive, often putting her sister, niece, and friends in grave danger to do whatever she thinks is right, regardless of the consequences. The end is just the predictable culmination of this slow build. The book is far too long and really suffers for its redundancy, length, and (in the case of the audio book) monotonous tone.
This is an interesting look at WWII from a perspective of two Frenchwomen, which I know, is a rather unusual literary perspective. It’s simply a shame that the plot, characterizations, and pacing don’t do the subjects more justice. A story of a female French freedom fighter should be more exciting and engaging, I think. I know I’m disagreeing with many Amazon reviewers here, but I wouldn’t bother with this one.