The Nightingale

9781466850606_p0_v3_s192x300Although Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale has hovered on the New York Times top ten for a while, I resisted reading this story of German-occupied France during World War II.  Maybe I wasn’t ready for the angst of another Tatiana de Rosnay like tale of two sisters who join the Resistance, one wholeheartedly, the other reluctantly.  Other Hannah books have always engulfed me in tears – Homefront, Night Road, Winter Garden – and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for horror and angst.  But when an old friend urged me to read the book, so we could talk about it – I did – and all my expectations were met.

Hannah’s descriptions of torture and cruelty are difficult to fathom, but a reminder of how horribly Jewish prisoners were treated.  The complicity of the Vichy government is a major character, along with the two sisters – Isobelle and Vienn who each fights in her own way to obstruct the takeover of France, and protect her family.

The historical novel is based on a conglomeration of stories, but two real heroines stand out as the inspiration for the two main characters. Andrée de Jongh, a 19 year old Belgian, like Isobelle as the nightingale spy for the Resistance, was inspired by  World War I heroine Edith Cavell.  De Jongh established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.  In The Nightingale, young and beautiful Isobelle leads downed pilots over the mountains to safety in San Sebastian.

Her sister, Viann, hides Jewish children in a Catholic orphanage until they can be reunited with their families after the war – close to the real story of Irena Sendler, who smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hid them in orphanages or convents. Sendler made lists of the children’s names and family connections and hid them in jars in her garden – just as Vienn did in The Nightingale – so that someday she could find the children and tell them who they were.

Hannah tempers the misery with some romance and adventure, and the story is compelling.  Once started, I found it hard to stop, but the novel left me bereft, despite the somewhat happy ending.

Reviews of Other Hannah books:


Reading about Provence can never replace being there, but Peter Mayle’s “Provence in Ten Easy Lessons” is a good way to remember the best of that beautiful area. After tasting my first pastis and gorging on cheeses and croissants, shopping in the open markets, and practicing my fractured French with a patient shopkeeper, I could connect with Mayle’s top ten list. He never mentioned the the rocky climbs rewarded with breathtaking vistas, the emerald green clear water, or the Mistral wind blowing hard enough at times to whip a landscape into a frenzy – but this was a short book – and Mayle has written so much about Provence in his other stories.

Learning to cook bouillabaisse with a master chef was an experience I’ll never forget. No wonder Julia Child fell in love with French cooking. I found myself intoning a sing- sing “bon appetit” often and looking for more recipes. Elizabeth Bard’s second memoir of her life in France, “Picnic in Provence” offers her recipes from the area – some worth trying.

A companion book I brought along – J. I. M. Stewart’s vintage book, “The Use of Riches,” was set in Italy, not France, but the story of the tortured artist and his vision reminded me of Van Gogh when I visited the asylum where he painted so many of his masterpieces. Stewart’s classic is initially confusing but worth the extra attention and the wait for the slow reveal; nevertheless, you must be persistent to connect. Languorous afternoons in the countryside of Provence may be the perfect setting to read it.

As I reluctantly retune my ear from French, Provence stays with me, and I found myself grinning when I greeted the American flight attendant with a hearty “bonjour.” She smiled back.


Mont Saint-Michel and Green Dolphin Street

The setting for Elizabeth Goudge’s 1830’s romance Green Dolphin Street is the 527189fishing town of Saint Pierre in the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, but the Abbey in the story is modeled after the famous Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.  This UNESCO site made the news this week when the causeway connecting the Abbey to the mainland disappeared under a high tide, creating an island cut off by the sea – a phenomenon occurring only every 18 years.

d0f99f7ad5444ac29745fe287f707dcf-d0f99f7ad5444ac29745fe287f707dcf-0-862Goudge’s book. and later the movie with Donna Reed and Lana Turner as the sisters battling for the love of the same man, uses the Abbey as a catalyst for the plot.  Dramatically beautiful scenes of isolation and peaceful seclusion have a daily tide, rather than one every 18 years, surrounding the building – keeping the nuns inside, and trapping unknowing trespassers who venture on the rocks at the wrong time of day.

I recently saw the movie version on my old movie channel (TCM).  The premise is ridiculous – the hero writes a letter asking his true love to join him in a new life in New Zealand but writes the wrong sister’s name (they both begin with M).  All their lives are changed irrevocably, with his true love going off to a life as a nun at the famous Abbey.

My library has an old copy of the book;  inspired by the recent news, I plan to read it –  and to add Mont Saint-Michel to my list of places to visit someday.  Have you been there?



The Girl You Left Behind

9780670026616_p0_v1_s260x420JoJo Moyes latest book – The Girl You Left Behind – has it all – intrigue, romance, historical World War I setting, the French countryside, even art – with references to Matisse. Charming and suspenseful, the story uses the painting by artist, Edouard Lefevre of his red-haired wife, Sophie, to link two love stories – one set in wartime France, the other in a modern war of provenance.

When the Kommandant, who has occupied Sophie’s hotel with his enemy troops, takes an interest not only in her husband’s portrait but in Sophie herself, the picture becomes a negotiating tool for Edouard’s freedom. Years later, Liv Halston finds herself in the middle of a court battle to keep the picture that gave her comfort when her husband died prematurely. Moyes cleverly builds in a back story of wartime drama.

A friend recommended this book, and I happily lost myself in the story, but – even better – the references to Matisse, one of my favorite artists, reminded me of my recent visit to the Matisse exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Navigating Early

9780385742092_p0_v1_s260x420When a young boy loses his mother, his quest for survival includes an adventure with a brilliant mathematical prodigy in Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early. As the author of the Newbery winning Moon Over Manifest, Vanderpool knows how to create suspense, excitement, and heart-rending moments; she made me cry and cheer with and for her characters.

When Jack Baker’s mother dies suddenly, his Naval officer father returns from the World War II front to a Northeast military base and enrolls Jack in a boarding school in Maine, far from the home he has always known in Kansas. Still reeling from grief, Jack, the new boy at school, finds solace in the friendship of another loner, Early Auden, who sees numbers in color and has created a story around the number pi that includes his quest to find his brother – declared dead after an explosion during the war in France. Auden is convinced that his brother is alive, and that clues to finding him lay in the calculation of the 3.14 number base – pi – and the story he weaves around it. As Jack and Auden follow the Appalachian trail through a journey that includes…

“pirates, a volcano, a great white whale, a hundred year-old woman, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a great Appalachian bear, and a timber rattlesnake – in Maine,”

both finally find peace and connections to their families, themselves, and to each other. This story of friendship, coping, and self-discovery is aimed at the middle school reader, but, as an adult, I count it as a favorite. As Jack’s mother advised…

“You have to look for the things that connect us all. Find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide…”

Related Post: Review of “Moon Over Manifest”