How I came by this book: majority rules, and while I’m not a huge historical fiction junkie (and by no means a romance novel addict) most of the members of my Tarpon Springs book club are apparently, because The Nightingale had the most votes for our September book choice.
Let me start by saying that historical fiction and nonfiction novels are so important. It’s necessary that we remember our history, both as a nation and a global community. If the topic is high-interest, and the book is well-written, you can occasionally catch me enjoying a historical fiction novel. Refugee by Alan Gratz and Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood are in my top 10 favorite middle grade reads (but maybe that’s my problem, they weren’t written for adults, and so they were much easier to consume). But I don’t usually go out of my way to read historical fiction; I’d much rather get caught up in a twisty, turny mystery/thriller or allow myself the nostalgia of returning to a dramatic young adult read. So maybe my bias towards historical fiction novels (which I’m working on) made it difficult from the first page to really get into this one.
Luckily for me, we’re hosting our German exchange student, Maria, and so I had the added enjoyment of discussing the history with her and asking for help on German word meanings (as well as generally butchering the pronunciation of said words). She also made the chore of reading a little lighter, telling me when she had to do homework that it was my time to do homework, as well. Knowing she was waiting to hear what I thought of the story may have been the only thing that kept me going!
Because, did I mention? This novel is 563 pages. But let’s start with what I enjoyed most about this story before I get to the gritty details of how painful it was for me to read.
This story was beautifully written. The language was appropriate for the time period and there was a good balance of the present (1995 present anyway) and the past. Writing in third person omniscient was necessary to follow the journeys of the two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, and each of their stories were seat-gripping and heart-shattering all at the same time. In the beginning, I was more attached to Isabelle’s plight and she felt like the more important character but the events of the story later changed my mind, making Vianne just as noble and important as circumstances in her life changed with the war. There were many instances where I was brought to tears, more so than any other fiction novel because this one was based on real events, real trials and tribulations that people actually went through during the second World War. It was devastating, heartbreaking, a tear-jerker, and whatever other synonyms you could use to describe a novel that steals a piece of your soul as you read it. This is a heavy story, albeit a tragically beautiful one, so mentally prepare yourself before starting on the girls’ journey.
What ruined this book for me I think was truly the sheer volume of it. 563 pages is a loooooot of pages for one book, unless it’s Harry Potter (and mind you, I’m also reading a book with my students, coincidentally another World War II story, and I usually read one or two for myself, so I had two other books going at the time that I was trying to conquer this beast of a book). To me, the length was overwhelming and felt unnecessary. I wasn’t truly invested in the story until I was about two-thirds of the way in (so about 375 pages) and to me that felt like a chore, forcing myself to read a book I wasn’t interested in. It literally goes against everything I tell my students when reading for pleasure; if you aren’t interested, it’s okay to abandon the book and find one you’d rather read. So I was set up for failure from the start, feeling like it was going to be my Everest, a really painful task that I had to force myself to do, to keep going (and I had to keep going because, book club). I realize World War II was a long, painful journey for those who lived through it, and I jokingly told my family that maybe the author was trying to put us through the same feeling with how long the book was, but it probably just comes down to how much information she needed to give us. As a writer, I’ll never discount another writer’s intentions for writing, and I know there’s always a purpose for what they write. To me, I felt the first hundred pages or so could have been summed up, and we could have jumped right into the heart of the war, the meat of the story that made it more interesting. But again, it wouldn’t be the same story if Hannah had done that, so I really can’t fault her for doing things the way she did, for telling every detail, however minute, so we’d fully understand what these characters, and the real people they’re created from, truly had to deal with during this time in our world’s history.
I want to give this book 4 out of 5 stars but I can’t forgive how overwhelmingly long it was, so for that I give it 3. I recommend it to any World War II buffs, anyone who enjoys historical fiction in general, and who doesn’t mind a good cry along the way. Get the tissues ready and enjoy this beautifully crafted tale.