The Nightingale

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Another book about the war, another Kristen Hannah book, another book set in Paris.  Admittedly, I'm not as enamored with any of these things as a lot of people are.  I do, however, appreciate a book with a clear understanding of the title.  This is the second book in a row with a symbolic title that is clearly explained. (Previous book "First Lie Wins".)  Of course we know a nightingale is a bird, but I'm not enamored with birds either.  So I didn't know it's song was sad and that they represent loss.  "Love that leaves or doesn't last or never existed in the first place." (Ch. 27, ePg. 389)

Some people need action to get hooked into a novel.  I need consistency.  It bugs me if the details don't line up as the story is being built. (Oddly, I just read another author's acknowledgements and she was thanking her copy editor for making sure all the details lined up because the author recognizes that it can be a distraction - so I felt a little vindication and reassurance that I am not so odd.)  After the wrap-around Chapter 1, the back story is presented in Chapter 2.  

Why is the sister still 4 and not 6 or 7?

Later, the age of Ari/Daniel bounces from toddler to 3 year old and back and forth, especially around ePages 388, 390, 398 in Ch. 27.  

So from the beginning I was not excited about this book.  However, it did get better.  Kind of like when the only person in the breakroom is your least favorite co-worker but you still manage to have a pleasant conversation.

This book is a few years old but somehow still very popular so I had to read whatever version I could get.  I started with the Large Print (LPg.) and then moved to eBook (ePg.) and audio (Chapter x).  I wasn't thrilled with the reader.  Their tone of voice seemed off and their speed was very slow so I had to use the app feature to speed it up.  Additionally, when they read Captain Beck, they gave him too much of a German accent.  When he said "wife" I heard five, when he said "with" I heard fifth.  I understand it's natural for a German to pronounce a "w" like a "v", but it was too overdone in this audio.

I switched to the audio book between Chapters 13 and 14.  So, the first chapter I heard was back in the current day - I had forgotten that this book had a wrap around. So for a little bit I thought I had pulled up the wrong title on my audio book app, especially because I wasn't yet paying full 100% attention when the date and location were read.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 2

Religion:  3

Gruesome:  2

Suspense:  1

Morality:  1

Traditional:  5

Sex - a married couple makes love with very little details (Ch. 3, LPg. 24) mild description in a moonlight and candles way (Ch. 29, ePg. 411)  Maybe another scene or two - nothing overly memorable, not including rape (addressed in gruesome).

Religion - the Catholic church is in the background of Vianne's life.  We occasionally see her at church.  Vianne seeks advice and support from Mother Superior (Ch. 12, ePg. 164) and turns to her on more than one occasion.  (Ch. 29, ePg. 420)  Mother Superior tells Vianne that she must stay strong but that belief in God, prayers and faith "will not be enough".  She continues to talk of being tested. (Ch. 12, ePg. 165)  "What kind of benevolent God would allow such a thing?" (Ch. 22, ePg. 338)  A mother explains death to her child as going to Heaven. (Ch. 23, ePg. 342) "Please God,'...What good were prayers now, when her loved ones were gone." (Ch. 23, ePg. 348)

Gruesome - Chapter 33 is full of gruesomeness, including rape and torture.  Outside of this section though, the book is generally mild.

Suspense - When Isabelle hides an index card in her sleeve and someone grabs her arm firmly. (Ch. 21, ePg. 315)  Isabelle told her dad to leave the secret room open while she went to get the Vizniaks.  When she returned to the apartment, without the Vizniaks, she never went to close the door.  (Ch. 22, ePg. 322)

Morality -  a policeman searches a woman in a lewd way (Ch. 27, ePg. 394) an unmarried couple shares a bed (Ch. 28, ePg. 402)

Traditional - as traditional as one can be in wartime, there were no surprise gender issues

Another odd inconsistency was that Isabelle went upstairs and slammed the door.  After a blank/skipped line in the text, Isabelle was asleep in the downstairs guest bedroom. (Ch. 8, LPg. 106)  Of course, she could have come back downstairs in that small blank space - but why even mention the up and down stuff.  It really doesn't matter which door Isabelle slams - it's meant to show her anger and frustration.  Sleeping downstairs is key because it shows a separation from her sister.  Especially because her first morning in the house she woke up upstairs and heard the radio downstairs.  So is this another inconsistency or a true clue to the tension between the sisters.  Hannah's books are thick enough, it's not like she needs to add extra details for length.

I also think it's weird when a high dollar word is used repeatedly within a short period.  For example, "Vianne studiously ignored..." (Ch. 11, LPg. 165) and "contemplating something she had studiously avoided". (Ch. 11, LPg. 167)  Although a secondary definition of studiously is in a deliberate manner, it is an unusual use of the word and to occur within two pages of each other is even more odd.  Another was the word "shoebox" which appears 3 times in the novel: once in Chapter 1 and then twice in Chapter 31.  Worse, was that the two occurrences in Chapter 31, the first one, on ePg. 440, compared a soft drink to a shoebox, indicating that the drink was large in size.  Then, on ePg. 443 it was used to show the smallness of an apartment.  

Discussion Questions

This book has a wrap-around story of an older woman downsizing near the end of her life and facing the shift of having her son, Julien, care for her instead of she caring for him.  How important was the wrap-around to the overall story?   Many of us are either caring for elderly parents or not far from the time when we will be cared for.  How relatable was the wrap-around for you? How did the wrap-around change the way you related to the novel?

Julien's mom had never told him her story because she thought it was important to be a regular old mother.  Would you rather be loved and admired or known?  (Ch. 1, LPg. 11)

When young Isabelle fled Paris with the other family in the car, the lady was upset because Isabelle didn't bring anything helpful like bread or water.  In Isabelle's defense, she thought she was packing to visit her sister, so she brought books.  (Ch. 5, LPg. 58)  What books would a younger you have taken to visit your sister?

Isabelle had the foresight to hide the valuables.  (Ch. 8, LPg. 107-8)  Think about your home.  What would you hide?  Where would you hide them?

Vianne wanted to listen to and trust the government and Petain.  Isabelle wanted to follow de Gaulle.  (Ch. 8, LPg. 127)  We study history so that we don't repeat it.  Think about recent history with the Covid Pandemic.  Many people followed the government's advice to vaccinate and mask up.  Others were against the advice.  Did we repeat history?

Would you have given names to a solider sitting at your table?  Or how would you have handled the request?  (end Ch. 11)

When Vianne is upset about her role in the list of names, Mother Superior advises Vianne, "Don't think about who they are.  Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you." (Ch. 12, ePg. 165)  Was this good advice?  What is the best advice you've received in a tough situation? 

After each modern day chapter, the next chapter began with a quote before returning to the past.  How did the quotes add to your reading experience? 

Isabelle had to cross a very scary bridge.  She reasoned that if the big men could do it, she could get across the bridge.  (ref. Ch. 19, ePg. 281)  Tell of a time when you had to do something difficult.  How did you get through it?

Isabelle and her group planned the trip across the mountains.  Once in Spain, she met with people and had debriefings and meetings.  Then she got a bunch of money to make more trips.  Did it seem too easy?  Or was there a lot of negotiations that happened off the pages?  Were the people in Spain funding her crossings part of the same group?  Or did she sign a contract for their group?

When Isabelle made the first journey over the mountains to lead the English soldiers to escape, why was it necessary for her to go? (Ch. 19) Was that the Resistance group's plan all along, that she would meet with MI9 and set up a process for future journeys?  When others warned Isabelle that Nazis were trying to infiltrate her escape route and they might pose as downed airmen to trick her, did you think it was foreshadowing? (Ch. 21, ePg. 309)  How was Isabelle able to travel back from Spain via train and stop in all the cities when train travel was restricted?  Did she have false papers for all the stops?(Ch. 21, ePg. 310)

Vianne could rationalize taking food from Captain Beck because he was a guest in her home and she had to cook for him.  But she felt that taking the medicine from him for Sophie was a favor meant to make her indebted to him. (Ch. 21, ePg. 307)  Do you agree with her feelings?

It's hard to imagine that Isabelle and her father didn't know what all the cards meant that she was sorting through or why officials would be gathering names and addresses of foreign-born Jews.  (Ch. 21, ePg. 315) How much of this storyline do you think was genuine confusion and how much was just for the storyline purpose?  Have you ever had a big situation that you couldn't figure out when you were in it, but in hindsight you could see how obvious it was?

The French soldiers told mothers they could leave their children behind since the kids were not foreign born. (Ch. 21, ePg. 319)  Would you have left your children?

Vianne was worried about her children and did a lot to protect them - until it came to Isabelle or Rachel.  Then she was fine leaving Sophie by herself at night and going to the border with adults. (ref. Ch. 22, ePg. 322 & Ch. 25, ePg. 382)  Especially when Rachel left with a friendly police officer. Is this realistic?  Do you think this was poor decision making because of stress, or was that really the best course of action?  What would you have done in her shoes?

Could Rachel have done more to not get caught? She hid in the cellar for less than 12 hours and when Vianne let her out, Rachel acted like it was such an inconvenience. (ref. Ch. 23)  In the end, was it Rachel's desire for a "quick bath" that led to her demise?  After they've given up so much to the Germans (their art, their food), was she too much of a princess in the end?  Later, Vianne lashed out at Beck and said Rachel had hid in "that terrible cellar" all day. (Ch. 23, ePg. 349)  In light of what eventually happened, was the cellar that terrible.

When Vianne and Rachel were in the chaos at the train station and the woman dropped her baby and it rolled to the boots of a soldier, why didn't Vianne scoop up that baby and save it?  (ref. Ch. 23, ePg. 345)  In all the crowd and panic, how did Vianne manage to not get swept along or mistaken for someone in the roundup?  Why did nobody even ask her for papers?  Were the physical differences between Vianne and a Jewish woman so great? (ref. Ch. 23, ePg. 346)

When Isabelle hid with the airman in the cellar and then the airman died, what other ways did you think of for them to get out of the situation? (ref. Ch. 25, ePg. 371)  Vianne was upset that Isabelle put her and Sophie at risk by bringing the airman there.  How was this different than the times Vianne put Sophie at risk by leaving her home alone or by rescuing Jewish children?

The second soldier that billeted with Vianne was, "a man who had stumbled into a little bit of power and seized it with both hands." (Ch. 28, ePg. 406)  Have you ever known someone who let their power go to their head?  Vianne tried to be unseen and compliant.  What is your strategy for dealing with people like this?  What would you have done in Vianne's shoes?

Vianne felt if she didn't try to save the Jewish children, she was as bad as the Nazis.  (ref. Ch. 29, ePg. 418) She didn't want Sophie to think "it's all right to do nothing". (Ch. 29, 3Pg. 424) Do you agree?  How far do you let things go before you'll take a stand?  Tell of a time you stepped in to be a hero for someone.

Would you last two days of interrogation and torture?  Would you fight or give up?  Either way, would you take the secrets to your grave?  After an amount of beatings, is death easier than recovery?

Who did you think the old woman was in the wrap-around story?  What were your ideas regarding who Julien's parents were?

If the German's weren't interested in Rachel's small house next to Vianne, why didn't she move over there and still keep an eye on Le Jardin but not be under the same roof as the German soldier?  (ref. Ch. 33, ePg. 469)  The door at Rachel's house was broken and hung crookedly, similar to the gate at Vianne's house.  (ref. Ch. 33, ePg. 470)  What is the symbolism of the broken entryways?

Both Vianne and Isabelle wanted approval from their father.  "She wanted to see herself reflected in his gaze, wanted just once to make him proud of her." (Ch. 33, ePg. 471)  Isabelle also wanted Vianne's approval.  How did their need for approval shape the people they became?  Who do you need approval from?  Their father, ultimately, sought their forgiveness - another type of approval.  (Ch. 33, ePg. 472)  Did he ultimately receive forgiveness from his daughters?  

Vianne honored the memories of her loved ones by tying scraps of fabric onto a tree. (Ch. 35, ePg. 504) The tree died even though other trees nearby continued to thrive.  Her first scrap was for her husband, Antoine.  He did survive even though others who were honored on the tree did not survive.  What is the symbolism of the dead tree?  Have you ever made a similar memorial or had a similar experience with something non-human that seems to take on the issue it represents?

Vianne reasoned that she could tell her husband a lot of things, including that she'd killed Beck.  But there was one thing she knew she could never tell him. (ref. Ch. 35, ePg. 507)  Sophie was also in on the secret, which affected more than just Antoine.  Do you agree with Vianne's logic of withholding this detail from Antoine?

Late in the novel there is a question regarding the best place for one of the children that Vianne rescued.  (ref. Ch. 37, ePg. 534)   Was the right decision made for the child?  

The wrap-around end of the story explains who Julien is and what happened to most of the key characters including Vianne, Isabelle, Sophie, and Ari/Daniel.  But what happened to Antoine and how did the old woman and Julien get to America?  The last we know of Antoine is when Isabelle believes he carried her upstairs and then that he is off building a cradle. (Ch. 37, ePg. 537)?

The old woman thought Paris smelled like "chestnut blossoms...baking bread, cinnamon, diesel fuel, car exhaust, and baked stone". (Ch. 39, ePg. 554)  What smells do you associate with certain cities?

Gaetan named his daughter Isabelle. (ref. Ch. 39, ePg. 560)  Is that weird?  What did his wife think?  Did he tell her?  What would you think?

Vianne felt like she never told Julien because, "Men tell stories...Women get on with it." (Ch. 39, ePg. 561)  Do you agree with her?

Kristin Hannah's driving question as she wrote this book was, "When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life - and more important, my child's life - to save a stranger?" (Conversation...ePg. 575)

In the eBook there are Reading Group Questions on ePg. 582.  I liked most of them and recommend questions 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, and 14.

Theme Ideas

Serve foods common to the town of Carriveau: pastel macarons; baskets of cheese, ham, saucisson; crates of tomatoes, aubergines, cucumber; coffee. (Ch. 2, LPg. 17)
After the picnic, Vianne made dinner: pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, apples glazed in wine sauce, fresh peas with butter and fresh tarragon, and baguette. (Ch. 2, LPg. 20)  For dessert, "ile flottante" - clumps of meringue, toasted and placed in "creme anglaise". (Ch. 2, LPg. 21)
Serve canele, like Vianne ate when she went next-door to Rachel's. (Ch. 3, LPg. 26)
Serve lemonade because Rachel invited Vianne over for lemonade after school when Vianne was worried about Isabelle. (Ch. 7, LPg. 80)
Vianne tended a garden.  Serve garden-fresh potatoes, onions, carrots, broccoli, peas, beans, cucumber, tomato, radishes, raspberries and berries. (Ch. 7, LPg. 81)
The first things Isabelle ate when she woke up at Vianne's after fleeing Paris: warm bread, cheese triangles, quince paste, sliced ham and cafe noir.  Vianne had espresso. (Ch. 7, LPg. 94)
Serve potato soup like Vianne served the first night with the Captain in the house. (Ch. 9, LPg. 130)  Include Sancerre wine like Captain Beck brought. (Ch. 9, LPg. 131)
Serve coffee and croissants like  Isabelle smelled when the French policeman was putting up posters. (Ch. 12, ePg. 172)
Henri made sausage in the headquarters. (Ch. 12, ePg. 175)
Serve fried fish and pan-roasted vegetables.  (Ch. 15, ePg. 195)  Are they really roasted if they were cooked in the same oiled pan as the fried fish?  Serve with wine, something like the '37 Montrachet that Beck served.
Serve cheese and apples, like the men and Isabelle carried with them when they escaped over the mountains. (Ch. 19, ePg. 274)
After Vianne passed out from hunger, she was served cafe au lait, a wedge of blue cheese, ham, and a hunk of bread.  (Ch. 20, ePg. 295)
Isabelle and two of the soldiers ate bread, cheese and wine. (Ch. 20, ePg. 299)
Serve candy and macarons, in honor of Sarah. (Ch. 22, ePg. 336)
Serve coffee and pain au chocolat like the German soldiers were eating when Isabelle arrived at Hotel Bellevue. (Ch. 24, ePg. 355)
Vianne browned ground sausage with a wooden spoon then added cubed potatoes and diced onion and garlic. (Ch. 24, ePg. 359)
When Vianne wanted to keep busy, to keep her mind off the airman in the cellar, she pickled cucumbers and zucchini and made pumpkin puree.  (Ch. 26, ePg. 372)  Serve similar items.
Serve butterfly macarons - coconut and raspberry flavors, like Vianne remembered from her mom's favorite bakery. (Ch. 39, ePg. 554)
Serve french fries (frites) in paper-wrapped cones like Vianne and Julien enjoyed on the way to the reunion. (Ch. 29, ePg. 555)

Serve or decorate with oranges in honor of Isabelle. (Ch. 4)
Play Belote like Isabelle, Vianne and Sophie played while Isabelle waited to distribute pamphlets. (Ch. 10, LPg. 159)
Write postcards like the women in Chapter 11.  You could write to soldiers, spouse, future-self, children, refugees or homeless.
Tie ribbons on a tree in honor of your loved ones.
Decorate with old Vogue covers and Eiffel Tower key chains like the vendors sold in kiosks. (Ch. 39, ePg. 555)
Scent your meeting place with jasmine like Vianne remembered from her backyard. (Ch. 39, ePg. 558)


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