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Literature / The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

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Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.
"I know now what matters, and it is not what I lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain."
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A historical fiction by Kristin Hannah set in pre-war and occupied France during World War II. It follows the struggles of two French sisters—the quiet, cautious Vianne and bold, impetuous Isabelle—and their loved ones during the Nazi occupation. Their stories are told in retrospect while we follow an elderly French immigrant in 1995, who is living out her last days in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

A woman with a terminal illness is being moved to a nursing home by her son, and finds an old trunk in the attic of her home, filled with memories of a past life. Over the course of her journey to the home and interacting with her son, she recalls the story of love and survival that was her experience during the war.

It is 1939. Vianne Mauriac lives in the French countryside with her husband, Antoine and their daughter, Sophie. Her existence is seemingly idyllic, filled with picnics, gardening, and plenty of time to spend with her loving family. War looms, however, and Antoine is called to the front in an anticipated defense against German aggression.

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Meanwhile, Isabelle Rossignol, Vianne's little sister, is expelled from another boarding school due to behavior issues, and goes to live with her father, Julien, in Paris. They tolerate each other's existence until Germany finally invades. Julian forces Isabelle to evacuate Paris and go to her sister in the country right before Paris is sacked by German forces, hoping that at least they will be able to take care of each other until the war is over. Along the way, Isabelle loathes the idea of waiting out the war on the sidelines, and tries to find a way to help resist the invading Nazis...

The Nightingale was published in February 2015. It should not be confused with the fairy tale set in China written by Hans Christian Andersen.


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In love, we find out who we want to be. In tropes, we find out who we are:

  • Action Girl:
    • One of Isabelle’s central characteristics. Her family members recall with varying degrees of astonishment and horror the time she ran away from a boarding school, embarking on a multiple-day journey across the French countryside to return home. She was 11.
    • By the end of the book, she has evaded the Nazis while distributing "terrorist" literature in Carriveau, stolen a Nazi police officer's bike, escaped across numerous checkpoints while delivering messages for the Resistance, smuggled dozens of Allied pilots across the country and through the Pyrenees to safety, survived multiple days of Gestapo torture, survived the ensuing months in a prison camp and a brutal forced march... only to be finished off by a nasty fever.
    Sophie: Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.

  • Adult Fear: Children are almost routinely abandoned, starved, threatened, harmed, and killed. Isabelle describes a two-year-old wandering around crying after his or her parents are bombed and strafed to bits by German Stukas. War Is Hell, indeed.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Julien started in on the brandy when he returned home from war... and never stopped.
  • The Atoner:
    • Julien wants to make up for being a crappy dad. He just can't sort it out. Until the end, and even then, it only prolongs the end for Isabelle.
    • Vianne realizes she cannot stay on the sidelines when Jewish children are being rounded up and deported— and feels all the worse for providing the list of names to Captain Beck. She chooses to provide secret identities to Jewish children and hide them away at the local abbey. She uses a covert system of keeping track of their real names, so they can be recovered by the loved ones after the war. She manages to save 17 children this way.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In French, nightingale translates to rossignol. Of course, it says as much in the text.
  • Bodybag Trick: Isabelle makes use of this, much to Vianne's dismay. She's unconscious, so it's not her decision. After Beck shoots her, she is stuffed into a pine casket and carted across the Carriveau checkpoint by Gaëton and Didier to a safe house.
  • British Stuffiness: The Nightingale comments on the casual reserve and stoicism of the British pilots, which would ordinarily pass for their having a Stiff Upper Lip... but the immediate comparison to the amiable, expressive Americans and Canadians drops this in the category of negative portrayal.
  • Chekhov's Skill: All those boarding schools Isabelle ran away from before the war? She managed to spend enough time at a Swiss finishing school to learn English. Guess what makes her the best candidate to lead a bunch of English-speaking pilots out of France?
  • Child by Rape: Vianne becomes pregnant with the child of Von Richter, the Nazi officer who rapes her. It's the one secret she never tells anyone, not even the son that results. Isabelle is the only one to figure it out.
  • Childhood Friends: Vianne and Rachel. Both were awkward, aloof teenagers— now they're inseparable. They both graduated teaching school together and teach at the same school in their hometown.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Can be just as dangerous as the Nazis themselves, and they don’t wear uniforms. The French police are particularly unscrupulous.
    • Villainous Glutton: The chief of police in Carriveau actually gains weight as the story goes on (while the rest of the townspeople starve), which emphasizes how much he benefits from playing for the German side.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • Commonly described as a favorite Gestapo interrogation technique.
    • Almost becomes a pun when Isabelle is stripped naked and locked in a refrigerator as part of her interrogation.
  • Cool Old Lady: Madame Babineau wears men’s clothes and trades goats for awesome cigarettes. She also operates the final safe house in the route out of France for downed Allied pilots and in the end helps Isabelle muster enough moral strength to survive the Nazi prison camp.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Julien. Somewhat of a subversion, since the child was the result of Von Richter’s repeated rape of Vianne.
    Vianne: Antoine was Julien’s father in every way that mattered. It is not biology that determines fatherhood. It is love.
  • The Determinator: It must be in the genes. Vianne and Isabelle endure seemingly superhuman amounts of pain, shame, and violence, and somehow continue to keep it together for the people they care about.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Isabelle dies just after she has been reunited with Gaëton while he holds her.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Julien, Vianne and Isabelle’s father, abandons them to a live-in nanny after their mother dies. Vianne gets knocked up by Antoine and is roughly given away in marriage, while Isabelle makes multiple attempts to reconnect with her father.
    • Also Antoine and Marc, after they are captured in battle.
    • Captain Beck misses his family a lot, including a newborn son, and it's hard not to imagine that they miss him, too. He never gets to see his son. God, War Is Hell.
  • Distant Finale: The ending takes place in 1995, fifty years after the war has ended.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Resistance leaders bank on Nazi soldiers not being overly analytical of cute, young, blonde Isabelle while she's smuggling contraband and passing messages. It works.
  • Even Mooks Have Loved Ones: Vianne is constantly surprised at her sympathy for Captain Beck. However, it makes perfect sense for the Team Mom to get all empathetic when the German captain frequently comments on how much he misses his family— and how much he wants the war to end, just so he can go home.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Both Vianne and Isabelle are pretty blondes— which both helps and hurts.
  • Evil Wears Black: SS and Gestapo soldiers wear black uniforms. The effect is not lost when von Richter moves in with Vianne.
  • Fisher Kingdom: As the war drags on, the residents of occupied France become more desperate and brutal, on all sides.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Gender-flipped. Gaëton and Isabelle get it on after the former patches up the latter after being shot by Captain Beck. It's about damn time.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Zig-zagged with Vianne and Isabelle. It's obvious that Vianne sees it this way, and early on in the narrative, Isabelle is painted in an extremely impulsive and unsympathetic light. It comes to a boiling point when Isabelle hides an actively hunted Allied airman in a cellar under Vianne's barn. Vianne is spitting nails as she leaves Isabelle down there, threatening to report her to the Nazis herself if Isabelle ever comes near the house again. By the end of the book, Vianne is in awe of Isabelle's courage and strength as The Nightingale, and deeply ashamed of her earlier threats to her own sister.
  • Foreshadowing: The old woman refers to “the man I killed, and the man I should have killed.” It’s left to the reader to find out who they are.
    • The first man was Captain Beck, who ended up finding Isabelle in the barn with a downed American pilot. Vianne hit him with a shovel and Isabelle shot him, so both women claim to have killed him.
    • The second man was the Gestapo officer who claimed Beck’s billet, von Richter. He repeatedly rapes Vianne in exchange for not harming her children, and escapes with the rest of the Nazis during France’s liberation.
  • Framing Device: The stories from the sisters in World War II are told by an old woman in 1995. It is left intentionally unclear who the narrator is, until the end.
  • Gay Paree: The City of Lights looks fantastic with all the Nazi soldiers guarding checkpoints and swastika flags hanging from the monuments.
  • Gratuitous French: Police are commonly called gendarmes. Isabelle is quite fond of zut! and merde!
  • Great Escape: The Resistance’s plan to smuggle Allied pilots out of France into Spain.
  • Harmful to Minors: Vianne laments that the war has practically robbed Sophie of the last bits of her childhood. Being constantly under mortal threat has permanently changed her personality from cheerful to cautious.
  • The Hero Dies: Isabelle makes it through countless dangers and even the prison camp, but she's too malnourished to fight off the double whammy of tuberculosis and pneumonia. She dies in Gaëton's arms two weeks after returning to Vianne.
  • Hope Spot: When Isabelle returns home from the prison camp. Her fever renders her bedridden, but she is with family and Gaëton and very happy— implying she might recover. However, we don't find out until Vianne's speech to the convention that she died.
  • The Informant: Vianne gives Beck a list of names, which counts a number of Carriveau’s citizens as members of certain unappreciated groups under Nazi occupation. This includes giving up Rachel as a Jew.
  • Informed Attribute: Captain Beck is repeatedly said to speak French poorly, even though he seems to be perfectly understood. The only hint of this in the dialogue is his use of “my pardons.
  • Jerkass: Sturmbannfuhrer von Richter. So much. It is difficult to find absolutely anything redeeming or likeable about him.
  • Just Following Orders: When Vianne asks Beck about his role in rounding up Jews for deportation, he trots out the classic Nuremberg defense.
  • Karma Houdini: Sturmbannfuhrer von Richter flees Carriveau with the retreating Nazis before anyone makes him pay for what he did to Vianne.
  • Kick the Dog: Well, it is set during World War II.
    • Von Richter goes out of his way to twist the knife. He casually hurls racial insults about Jews having diseases, extorts Vianne for the purpose of sexual violence, and pours real coffee down the sink in front of Vianne (It Makes Sense in Context, most French non-collaborators hadn't had real coffee in years at that point).
    • Vianne tries to make the family's money last as well as she can, and they eat reasonably well... until she makes the mistake of asking why a certain teacher was being fired. The present Gestapo officer fires her just for asking. Good luck making those ends meet.
    • See the Obligatory War Crime Scene entry.
  • Last-Name Basis: Vianne and Captain Beck. The only time she uses his first name Wolfgang is when she's trying keep him from finding Isabelle hiding with the wounded pilot in her barn.
  • Lovable Rogue: Gaëton plays this fairly straight. He's introduced to Isabelle as she's starving and vulnerable, and he helps her out. Then she finds out that he's there because French authorities opened the prisons, and he's some kind of criminal— he lets on that he "took something that did not belong to [him]", but he never elaborates.
    • Needless to say, Isabelle falls in love with him immediately.
    • He tries multiple times to dissuade Isabelle from joining any kind of war effort. She finally makes him promise to take her to the front to resist the Germans, and he claims that such promises (in true Lovable Rogue fashion) are Sealed with a Kiss. He waits until she falls asleep in her sister's garden to leave, pinning a note to her that reads, word for word, "You Are Not Ready."
  • Love Across Battlelines: Played for Drama between Vianne and Captain Beck. With the seemingly miniscule chance of Antoine ever returning home and the war ever ending anytime soon (which would allow Captain Beck to return to his family), the two are really just missing intimacy. There are some held gazes and even an Almost Kiss, but it’s probably a bit strong to call it “love” in any case.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Early in the married life between Vianne and Antoine, her string of miscarriages caused her to drink deep from the well of depression. She went down so far that she forced Isabelle to leave their home, which Isabelle resented well into adulthood. When Sophie finally came, she mostly snapped out of it.
  • Meaningful Name: Rachel, Sarah, and Ari are distinctively Jewish names. These three are go on to have some... difficulties with Nazis.
  • Missing Mom: The number of children abandoned by mothers who are shipped off to prison camps is positively heart-wrenching. It includes Rachel.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Vianne's reaction when she finds out what use will be made of the list of names she provided Beck. Upon confessing this to Rachel and the abbess, they both confidently assert that she had very little choice and that the names would have been uncovered eventually. Still, Vianne feels a terrible amount of shame.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: A massive crowd of refugees clogs the roads leading away from Paris in their attempt to escape Nazi forces. Cue the Stukas.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Captain Beck is this trope in spades. He really tries to lessen the burden of occupation on the family he's staying with, to the point where townspeople gossip about his relationship with Vianne. He brings them wine, food, and chocolate from time to time, even information about Antoine, including his postal information and a guarantee for delivering care packages; he provides these favors generally without conditions. Until he needs a list of all the people in the village that the Nazis might not appreciate or drives said townspeople into train cars with a whip. Even afterwards, he's exceedingly kind to his "host family," and takes great care to avoid being a burden to them.
    • Julien allows Isabelle to re-open the bookshop, even when he knows what it will be used for, and the hazards it will introduce for him. He knows it will make her happy and give her a way to contribute, which is really all she wants.
  • The Power of Love: Isabelle invokes this when a Canadian pilot collapses during the hike through the Pyrenees and cannot find the strength to get back up— she asks if he's got a girl at home, and tells him to get up for her. He obliges.
    Pilot: You're not playing fair, baby doll.
  • Precision F-Strike: Didier's reaction to finding a dead German officer with his blood all over Vianne's barn summarizes just how the situation is the worst case scenario.
    Didier: What in the fuck happened here?
  • Promotion to Parent: Sophie. She practically does all the taking care of Daniel/Ari, since Vianne can’t bring him into town out of fear that he will be recognized and deported to a concentration camp, but she still has to go out for rations.
  • Quit Your Whining: For being ferried along through the French countryside and the Pyrenees at extremely great risk by compassionate French resistors, the Allied pilots do their share of griping about the hike. Eduardo, naturally, has No Sympathy. To be fair, all the pilots eventually express how grateful they are for the assistance.
  • Rape as Drama:
    • Implied to likely be the fate of women who are taken prisoner by the Nazis for subversive crimes.
    • Poor Vianne. Von Richter threatens to harm her children if she doesn’t submit to his sadistic, repeated rape.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Julien does his best to make up for being a terrible father by taking the fall for Isabelle as The Nightingale.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Isabelle and Vianne, respectively. Also, Rachel and Vianne, to an extent.
  • La Résistance: Naturally, they appear early and often. Just as naturally...
  • The Reveal: The final narrative reveals who the old woman is. It’s Vianne.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Several Resistance members believe that the passive methods of literature distribution and smuggling downed pilots out of France is not enough to resist the Nazis, and they turn to active sabotage and guerrilla warfare. Gaëton joins them.
  • Second Love: Gaëton is implied to have found one when Vianne sees him at the convention with his daughter, but he admits he never stopped loving Isabelle his whole life.
  • Secret Identity:
    • “Juliette Gervaise” for Isabelle. Hardly anyone in the Resistance knows her real name, by design. This was common practice, to prevent captured Resistance members from being compelled to give up real names.
    • Ari is given the name Daniel when he is fostered, and eventually adopted, by Vianne. This is to hide not only his trail to Rachel, but also his distinctively Jewish name. He is considerably confused when the men who come to take him to America after the war call him Ari.
    • In addition, Vianne constructs a rudimentary, disjointed database of index cards for keeping track of the real names of Jewish children she renames and hides at the abbey, so that they can be reclaimed after the war.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Julien served in World War I at the Battle of the Somme, and the psychological toll is painfully visible. He begins drinking heavily when he comes home from war, and gives up on fatherhood entirely when his wife dies.
    • Also, Antoine. He escapes and returns home right before Germany is defeated. He survived for nearly five years in a Nazi POW camp, and it shows. Vianne sadly mentions that their marriage is practically a shell of what it once was.
  • Shovel Strike: How Vianne offs Captain Beck in the barn when he discovers Isabelle with the airman.
  • Shown Their Work: There are mentions of the Phoney War, the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, and Operation Torch, just to name a few.
  • Sibling Team: Averted. The description of the book might lead you to believe that Vianne and Isabelle need to rely on each other for strength during such tough times. But they're so different in personality and far apart in age that it never really materializes.
  • The Siege: Paris is practically an open-air prison camp for most Parisians after the Battle of France.
  • The Stoic: Quite a few.
    • First prize goes to Eduardo, the Basque mountain guide. Life as a Basque herdsman prepared him very well for long trips through the Pyrenees, but he remains emotionally steady when facing additional hazards like hiking in the dark through freezing rain and armed sentries at checkpoints.
    • Julien, as well. It's part of the job, of course, but he is rather gruff and reserved as a rule before the war.
    • Antoine makes an attempt at this to save his family the grief of finding out that he has to go to war. His moodiness is immediately noticed by Sophie and his last moments with Vianne end in Not So Stoic fashion.
  • Switching P.O.V.: There are three points of view that take turns throughout the book: the old woman, Vianne, and Isabelle.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Antoine is described this way. Also, Gaëton, the escaped thief and resistance fighter.
  • Take Care of the Kids: Common, given how many parents are rounded up and sent to camps on train cars. The most prominent example is Rachel giving up Ari to Vianne.
  • Team Mom: Vianne. She is almost always described in matronly terms.
  • Thicker Than Water: Isabelle forces Vianne to make a tough decision by hiding an Allied airman in the cellar under her barn. Vianne can either cover for Isabelle and put herself and Sophie at risk, or leave Isabelle to the consequences of her own rash decision. Her choice is resoundingly clear when Beck discovers Isabelle hiding with the airman, and Vianne takes him out with a shovel. But not before unloading a harsh, vindictive diatribe against Isabelle for putting her own family in so much danger... again.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Vianne hangs a piece of fabric from the apple tree for every loved one who is taken from her. By the end of the novel, there are four. The tree dies shortly after the first piece of fabric is hung.
  • Took a Level in Cynic: Gaëton is furious when he spots French soldiers deserting the front in a tank. The soldier he assaults and threatens to kill is too defeated to fight back.
    Gaëton: Where are you going? Who is fighting for France?
    Soldier: No one.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior:
    • Isabelle escaped a boarding school and hitch-hiked across France back to her father in Paris at age 11.
    • Sophie rebuffs Vianne's attempt to console her, by claiming that no, she won't see Sarah in heaven, because she was Jewish. Sophie makes it clear that she sees this as a patronizing comment from Vianne and does not appreciate it. Vianne is too shocked by this response to reply.
  • You and What Army?: Vianne’s reaction to Isabelle hearing Charles de Gaulle giving his Appeal of 18 June speech on the radio, and her suggesting they join his resistance.
    • Justified, in that De Gaulle really only had a comparative handful of troops who evacuated to England, and most of those even decided to return to France instead of stick with De Gaulle (not that Vianne had any way of knowing any of that).
  • You Have Failed Me: The driving force behind Beck's sudden vengeful mood— the Gestapo are having trouble finding an Allied pilot who went down over Carriveau, and are blaming the Wehrmacht captain for being incompetent. Beck claims they will kill him if he cannot recover the pilot soon.
    • Of course, when he does find the body, he is killed anyway. But not by the Gestapo.
    • Von Richter, being the consummate Jerkass that he is, blames Beck's death on him being a poor shot, presumably due the Wehrmacht's low standards of marksmanship training (which would be an absurd statement about a German army officer regardless of the Interservice Rivalry). Just this quick, tasteless quip demonstrates that the point was not really that much about finding the pilot as it was about asserting the Gestapo's dominance over the local Wehrmacht.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Isabelle repeatedly attempts to gain the affection of her father. He lacks the words to say it outright how sorry he is for abandoning them, so instead he takes the fall for Isabelle when she is captured. The effect is not lost on her.
  • Wham Line: Isabelle accuses her father of cowardice when she finds that he gave up the bookstore to be an attendant at a Nazi-frequented establishment, and he is visibly hurt. He cannot defend himself by telling her his purpose for this, since that would put her at risk if she were ever interrogated.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Marc, Rachel's husband. We can maybe assume that he was captured, but that's as far as the trail goes.
    • In a brutal fashion, all the "mice" rounded up by the Nazis during the story are finally accounted for at the end. Rachel and Marc are dead, as well as many of the parents of the Jewish children Vianne saved, while Henri the resistance fighter was hanged in the street while the rest were sent to concentration camps.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Isabelle and Gaëton. They're both afraid to fall in love since they're in the middle of a war. Eventually, they do.
    • In a more serious fashion, Vianne and Captain Beck. It's shown as being a very complex relationship brought on by the stresses of war, being apart from their respective spouses with no idea when or if they'll ever see them again, and how Captain Beck keeps behaving like a decent man to Vianne. Like most things about the war, it's made clear there isn't going to be a happy ending for them. Aside from an Almost Kiss, nothing ever comes of it, with Vianne actually brutally killing him rather then letting him hurt Isabelle.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Sarah is mercilessly gunned down by a Nazi soldier while attempting to escape Carriveau.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Vianne is a Western example. She is demure and quick to defer to the authority of others, but when her back is against the wall, watch out, because there's nothing she won't do to protect her family.

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