“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” With those words, Vianne Rossignol opens the story of her life, and the lives of her loved ones, during the occupation of France. Rossingnol means ‘nightingale” in French, and in the end Vianne recognizes herself in that word, but it is her sister Isabelle who is known by that name during her harrowing years in the French Resistance. We seem to be hungering for stories of World War II these days, as though we need to experience again the tests of love and character the war demanded. If so, Kristin Hannah’s story of two sisters will not disappoint you. The Nightengale brings to life the Nazi Occupation, the extreme hazards and differing modes of survival with a non-judgmental honesty that will stay with you for a long time.
Overcome by grief at the loss of his wife, Julien Rossignol leaves his two daughters in the care of an unnamed woman at the Rossignol summer home in the Loire valley. Fourteen-year-old Vianne and four-year-old Isabelle cope with their abandonment in very different ways; Vianne seeks the safety of obedience, Isabelle becomes uncontrollable. Vianne marries a local schoolboy; Isabelle is expelled from one boarding school after another. The German invasion finds Vianne the mother of six-year old Sophie. Her husband goes off to war, and the Germans invade Paris. Isabelle, expelled from yet another boarding school, is sent by their father to live with Vianne, who she knows doesn’t want her any more than her father does. Lost in the crowds fleeing Paris, dodging German bombs, she meets Gaeten, a young man on his way to war who promises she can help fight the invaders. Thus the pair’s very different characters lead to very disparate paths through the war, and the word “nightingale,” in the end, applies to both.
From bomb to starvation to the fate of the village Jews, this story dodges nothing, yet it is, at heart, the story of survival and the depths of family bonds—a story of two sisters. A powerful read.