Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is set in France during World War II and tells the story of two sisters - Viann and Isabelle and their lives during this period. Viann Mauriac says goodbye to her husband as he heads to the front to fight for France and she settles into their countryside home in Carriveau with their young daughter to endure wartime and wait for her husband's return. Meanwhile, Isabelle, always a rebel, finds herself working for the Resistance and  risking her life to fight the enemy. Through each of their stories, the reader is transported to France during the war and witnesses the sacrifice and endurance of French women during WWII. Sacrifice and endurance are wrapped in a love story and family drama which captivates the reader.

Viann and Isabelle have a fractured relationship; after the death of their mother when they were both young girls, they were left with their father who was ill-equipped emotionally following the death of his wife to deal with raising his young daughters. Viann, ten years older than Isabelle, was left to care for her younger sister but when Viann marries Antoine, Isabelle is shipped off to boarding school. Feeling abandoned, Isabelle resents Viann and acts out at boarding school and is expelled from school after school. Early on in the war, Isabelle arrives at Viann's home in Carriveau and they must work on their relationship in order to coexist and face the difficulties of Nazi occupation of their town.

Isabelle's rebellious streak persists and she is disgusted by Viann's inclination to do as she is told and to follow the orders of the occupiers. When German Captian Beck "billets" in Viann's home and lives side by side with her, Isabelle and Viann's young daughter, Viann is accommodating in an effort to keep from angering the soldier and in the hope that he will assist in contacting her husband who has been captured by the enemy.  Her approach to the war is to stoically accept the hardships and to try to endure; Isabelle, meanwhile joins the Resistance and distributes Anti-Nazi materials undercover throughout the town. This evolves into her shepherding British and American soldiers that have been shot down across the Pyrenees into Spain - her code name is Nightingale. Two sisters take very different paths during the war but ultimately gain an understanding and a respect for each other.

My Thoughts
This book captured my attention and had me hungrily reading for more - beyond the story of the sister's relationship, I was drawn into the hardship endured by those in the French countryside during the war. The author expertly describes the effects of draconian food rationing and intimidation meted out by the occupying German forces.  There were scenes, reminiscent of those in another Hannah novel, Winter Garden, where Viann broke down furniture to  burn and provide a little heat for her and her daughter through the long, cold winter. I cried twice during this novel - both times during scenes which involved children facing the atrocities of war while their parents plead for mercy for them. Hannah perfectly crafted these scenes  - she made them moving without being overly sentimental.

Ultimately, the appeal of this book lies in how humanity triumphed over the unthinkable horrors of war.

Isabelle's character is based on a Belgian woman, Andree de Jongh who set up an escape route for captured Allied soldiers during WWII.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Salon: March 15, 2015

The Sunday

The Scene: 8:33 am, Sunday: on couch with my trusty sidekick, Prince. He is back from vacation in Florida (he has been down there with my parents since I went to South Africa after the holidays).  They have taken great care of him but I am so happy to have him back.

Reading: While in Florida last week, I was drawn to books with a beach setting so I started reading Silver Girl by Elin Hildebrand.  The book has been on my shelf for a few years and it seemed like a perfect choice for the beach.  I am tearing through the book and glad I picked it up. Prior to that, I finished The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (review coming soon). It is a historical fiction set in France during WW2 and tells the story of two sisters  - one who fights for the resistance and one who lives in the country and tries to survive wartime while her husband is at the front. I loved this book - I even cried twice while reading it. 

Listening: For a while now, I have been listening to Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe - it is the letters of a British nanny in the 80's (Nina) to her sister. The book was lauded as a best book of 2014 but so far I have not seen (or heard) the magic. The re-telling of her mundane days is not capturing my attention but I am nearly done with it and we will see if there is a revelation before the end!  Have you read or listened to this one? 

 Blogging: Last week a blogger and tweeter that I follow, Lisa Adams (@adamslisa) died of metastatic breast cancer. If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed that I have been re-tweeting the many articles written about this impressive woman. Lisa was first diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 37 and, following a number of years with a status of NED (no evidence of disease), she was diagnosed with metastatic disease in 2012.  When she died last week at the age of 45 she left behind her husband and three young children. 

Photo credit: Lisa Adams

Lisa wrote beautifully on her blog about living with breast cancer and her fears about leaving her children at such a young age. Her posts were poignant, direct and moving and articulated difficult emotions so well. Her tweets were a mix of pithy insights into the grind of constant treatment for her disease, observations about her children and commentary on the last show she was catching up via Netflix while trying to regain her energy following a treatment. I found myself looking for her tweets everyday and hoping to see that she was getting some relief and evidence that her latest treatment was working to give her a little more precious time.

Lisa's bio on twitter includes the statement: "Doing as much as I can for as long as I can" which I think perfectly demonstrates the way in which she lived her life with incurable breast cancer - she eschewed any notions of "battling" cancer or outsmarting cellular biology but intelligently developed treatment plans with her oncologist to control her disease as much as possible so she could spend precious time with her young children. She focused on the present and encouraged people to "Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems" and urged on twitter "Find a bit a beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere." Persevere she did and took us along in an effort to educate about metastatic breast cancer, living with the disease and in an effort, I think, to connect and fend off isolation. She will be missed.

You can read her most popular posts here (including one about what to say and not to say to someone with cancer) and also see a collection of the remembrances that have been posted since her death including one by Bethanne Patrick (aka "The Book Maven") and Katherine Rosman of the New York Times. Lisa established a fund at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to fund research into metastatic breast cancer. 

This picture below from my visit to Florida last week is my "bit of beauty" today in honor of Lisa.