You could say I am late to the party, and you would be
right. I had a chance to read a galley, but I read the synopsis and then
scrolled past it. More World War II fiction? Ho hum. But the most well-worn
subject matter can be made brand new in the most capable hands, and Hannah has
done that. I thank the Goodreads friends that insisted I should read this book,
and Seattle Bibliocommons for providing me with a copy.
Our two protagonists are French sisters whose mother has
died. Vianne, the elder sister, marries and leaves; Isabelle is sent to one
boarding school after another by her grieving papa, who has nothing to give his
daughters emotionally. The Nazi threat is far away and of little concern to the
people of Paris—until they come closer, and then they’re here.
The Nazis sweep through Papa’s bookstore. They trash the
shelves and confiscate all of his Marx, all of his Trotsky. They say these are
terrorist materials. And then—they put him on their payroll.
Isabelle leaves yet another boarding school and goes home to
her Papa, determined to remain at home. She receives a cold and unwelcoming
return; then the Germans pierce the Maginot Line, once believed to be
impenetrable, and Paris is no longer safe. Papa sends a bitter Isabelle to live
with her sister, but she is traveling in the car of neighbors, and they are
forced to abandon their vehicle. Isabelle is on her own.
Vianne, meanwhile, is tending to hearth and home. For years
she miscarried one baby after another, late miscarriages at that, and the love her
sister might have expected has instead turned to grief for the tiny people
buried in a family plot in Vianne’s yard. Her husband has been conscripted, and
she is alone with the one child she was able to bear. Vianne is not a risk
taker, because she has too much to lose. Everything she does is in the interest
of her daughter, Sophie, and her husband. Isabelle arrives and almost
immediately begins making waves, behaving provocatively toward the occupying
German forces, and Vianne is horrified. Isabelle has to go.
Over the course of the story both sisters are developed in a
way that is so natural, so believable that I can sometimes predict what they
will do, not because the writing is formulaic—it isn’t—but because I feel I
know them so well now. I want to speak to the characters directly, so visceral
is my reaction to them. Isabelle, who at the outset is reactive and reckless,
joins the Resistance and becomes a disciplined patriot, code-named “The
Nightingale”. She is still courageous, but she learns to weigh her actions
against the benefits and risks to her cause. Vianne, who at the outset is
conservative, becomes more willing to take risks on behalf of the Jewish
children in her small community, children that are likely to either starve or
be killed if they are not smuggled into safe homes. All along, I am murmuring advice to them: “Do
it! Do it!” and “Don’t you dare.”
A particularly interesting and unexpected development is the
change in Papa; the drunken, abusive, uncaring lout has a side that nobody
suspects, and he becomes a flawed yet heroic side character.
Once I realized that Hannah is a force in today’s literary
world, I read the galley of her next novel, The Great Alone (reviewed by me
also.) It was good, but nothing close to what this story is, and so I am glad I
read them in this order, saving the better story as a tasty dessert. If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now.