Unlike my previous post about The Door, this book is a page turner the lacks the poetic flow and complexity of Szabo’s writing, but it offers a compelling WWII story that kept me up until 2 am reading the last 150 pages because I simply couldn’t go to bed without finishing it. Set in France just prior to and during the war, it centers around two sisters, abandoned at young ages by their father after their mother dies. Haunted by the first World War, he is no longer able to cope without his wife. His older daughter, Vianne, soon falls in love, becomes pregnant, and marries at 17. She moves to an old family home to start her own family and raise her young sister, but after suffering a series of miscarriages, she can no longer care for Isabelle who is then left to fend for herself at various boarding and finishing schools, many of which she gets kicked out of due to her rebellious spirit. Vianne feels guilty and Isabelle, resentful. When the Germans occupy France, eventually rounding up Jews and shipping them off, both girls are affected–not only by lack of food, heat, and basic provisions, but also by their involvement in efforts to save or hide those in peril. For Vianne, it’s her neighbor and best friend who is Jewish, and for Isabelle it’s as a smuggler for downed pilots and others who need to get out of France so they can continue fighting with the Allied forces. It’s a bit of a soap opera and probably not much of a discussion book, but I couldn’t help becoming completely drawn into their world, wondering if I’d ever be brave enough to volunteer as a smuggler or if I’d be more reserved like Vianne, trying to go unnoticed in an effort protect her daughter. Yet, even she takes action when her best friend is taken away leaving her baby with Vianne.
As far as WWII books set in France, All the Light We Cannot See is better literature and Sarah’s Key was a more unique story, and I liked both of them better than The Nightengale. Still, it’s a story that swept me in with characters I cared enough about that I started the book on a Friday afternoon and finished it very late the next night–all the while completely ignoring the papers I should have been grading. (more…)