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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

A romanticized look at World War II, focusing in particular on women's struggles in France under the German occupation. The writing is less compelling than I expected, with a heavy reliance on clichéd expressions and sentimental drama. But the bigger problem for me was the characterization of Isabelle. There's something wrong when you spend most of a book being annoyed by a main character who's supposed to be admired for doing numerous heroic deeds.

Isabelle is based on a real-life war hero so her bravery is meant to be inspiring, but she comes across as a reckless, impulsive brat who has no real understanding of risks and danger, probably because one of her reliable methods of escaping detection is simply flirting with German officers. I didn't sympathize with her much until she got captured later in the book. Her sister Vianne is a more sympathetic character, though unfortunately her plot develops more slowly and sometimes seems to move in circles.

Characters are more interesting when they have moral dilemmas, like the way Vianne struggles with accepting help from German officer Captain Beck or coming to a decision to save Jewish children, but for Isabelle everything is black and white: Germans are bad, French people must resist, those who don't are traitors. It's easy for her to decide to join the resistance when she hardly thinks about her own safety or her family's. She seems to have little internal struggle and to lack a personal motivation, except maybe her love for Gaëtan which she unconvincingly develops in an instant. Some parts of the novel give off a cheesy romance vibe and it's particularly strong in Isabelle and Gaëtan's story line.

While the first half of the book is somewhat tame and sanitized, with Isabelle's dangerous missions made to sound easy, the violence and brutality are crammed into the latter half. The novel is also chock-full of distracting errors and discrepancies — not just historical facts that people unfamiliar with the setting and the era might not be aware of, but things that don’t make sense or contradict what is said in a previous chapter or page — from the characters' inconsistent ages to what people can or cannot procure during the war. I respect the author’s good intentions in writing a story inspired by real-life women of the French resistance, but in my opinion the execution was sadly lacking.