The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

I  also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel, Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.

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“Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay

First off, although the main topic of this book is about a grim point in world history, I had a hard time putting this book down. I did not intend to start my year off with such a heavy subject, but when I pulled this book off the shelf and read the back cover, I wanted to know the whole story.

The first page introduces Sarah, a 10 year old Jewish girl living in Paris in July of 1942. She is awoken in the middle of the night by French officers under orders to round up Jewish families with children ages 2-12. Confused, she is lead away with her parents, leaving her little brother hidden in a cupboard under lock and key with the perception that they will return shortly. What unfolds is a first-count point of view of the Velodrome d’hiver, the Jewish round-up in Paris, France during the German occupation in World War II. The roundup sent over 4,000 children with their families to Auschwitz.

As Sarah’s story starts to unfold, we are transported 60 years ahead and introduced to Julia, an American-born journalist who lives in present-time Paris. She is given the assignment to research the Vel’ d’Hiv for it’s 60th anniversary, and the deeper she delves into the past, the more she uncovers about her own life. Although she has been living in Paris for 25 years, she struggles with being accepted as anything more than “L’Americaine”, The American. While researching about Paris’s dark past, she connects to the history that many Parisians blocked from memory.

Without giving too much away, Julia’s search into the horrific night of July 16, 1942 leads her to Sarah’s own story, and it changes everything. Julia’s family relationships shift, and she is left with many choices to make, moral and otherwise. Using her journalistic skills, she searches for answers until the final pages of the book, where the past is finally laid to rest. “Zakhor. Al Tichkah. Remember. Never Forget.”

I finished “Sarah’s Key” in 3 days, an almost 300 page book. It was hard to put it down once I started, and I’m lacking in sleep because of it. It’s worth the read, absolutely. However, there are two things that I wasn’t so fond of, just in general terms. First, the book starts with two different perspectives, written in two types of font with a header that lets you know the “chapter” or narrator had changed. This made sense; I liked how they weaved the story line. But about 150 pages in, the narration from Sarah stops (which is understandable in the story line), and becomes mostly just Julia’s point of view, yet it is still separated in these short little “chapters”. I feel it would have been easier to follow the train of her thoughts if it wasn’t so punctuated with these headers. The second thing that I wasn’t so fond of was the change in Julia’s narration. In the beginning, although she is questioning her own acceptance in Paris, she seems to be a determined woman with something to prove. But as the story unfolds, Julia loses the gumption and becomes less self confident, questioning herself repeatedly. As the reader, I felt like I got stuck in her train of self-doubt, which slowed down the fast pace of the book. In the author’s defense, maybe this was intentional and I’m just not scholarly enough to understand her literary tools, but as a member of her general audience, this is my personal assessment.

Despite the minor discrepancies that I had with the narration, the story de Rosnay shares pulls at your heartstrings. Although these are fictional characters, the events of Vel d’Hiv were real and tragic. “Sarah’s Key” serves as a reminder to never forget the events brought about by the German Occupation throughout Europe during World War II. Even dark times in the past still have a way of changing our present and future.

**UPDATE 2-29-16**- I found that there is a DVD of this novel, and it is absolutely worth watching, if you decide to skip the read. If I didn’t know the book, the DVD wouldn’t have jumped off the shelf to me, but in my opinion it streamlines the entire plot. There are obviously things cut out in the movie that are in the book, but the emotional connection is still there. I cried, and I’m not embarrassed about it. It’s just so heart wrenching…. and I still encourage you all to hear this story.