This is a powerful novel about two sisters in France during WWII, and their experiences with the German invasion. It touches on love, war, family, and personal conflict, and explores many of the relationships from a female perspective (as opposed to many history books, which tend toward male perspectives). It’s a great book, and I would definitely recommend it.
The story begins with two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, in 1939. Their father returned from WWI scarred and broken, and their mother passed away while they were young. The father, unable to care for them, sent them away, which involved boarding houses and schools. The older one, Vianne, fell in love and got on with a relatively normal life; Isabelle was left out with nobody to love her, and she bounced around a lot. As the war approached, Vianne was mid-20s and Isabelle was late teens. Soon into the book, Germans invade Paris and take over much of France, including where the sisters live. They have very different responses to the conflict — Vianne continues raising her daughter while her husband goes to fight, and Isabelle chooses to work with the resistance. Their storylines diverge from there, only to occasionally intermingle towards the end.
Vianne is forced to house a German soldier, albeit a respectful one, who on occasion provides food when rations are unavailable. He is portrayed as a gentleman, though housing a Nazi soldier lowers Vianne in social standing. She agonizes over his presence, as well as her best friend — Rachel, who is Jewish. People disappear over the course of the years, including Rachel, and Vianne takes in her son as her own. She finds other Jewish friends who are being taken, and ultimately helps funnel their children into an orphanage (this ties into Lilac Girls, where Carolyn assembles gift packages for orphaned children in France). The first Nazi soldier is killed, and then an SS agent lives with her, making her life a living hell and treating her horribly. Knowing her husband is in a POW camp, she bears this burden and others as her sacrifice.
Isabelle gets in contact with the Resistance, and finds they need a way to get downed airman out of the country. She helps set up and then lead a path through the Pyrenees mountains, escorting British and American pilots through brutal terrain. She ultimately conveys over 100 pilots along this route. She is ultimately captured as a resistor, though they do not know her as The Nightingale, which they have been searching for. She is taken to a concentration camp called Ravensbruck (another connection to Lilac Girls, as Ravensbruck is where much of that story occurs), where she and a friend rely on each other to stay upright and alive. She ultimately makes it out, traveling back to Vianne’s house, where they are able to repair their relationship.
The story and writing are powerful, and there are dozens of examples of how women helped each other and resisted the occupiers in small ways. Dozens of times, Vianne doesn’t know how she can go on, but mentions that Motherhood requires her to keep going, so she stops her tears and helps the kids continue on. There is extensive sadness and some depravity, horrible conditions that get glossed over when hearing about the statistics of WWII. At the end, a character talks about how an entire generation was wiped out, and how difficult it will be to rebuild and recover their society and culture. It is tremendous that, only ~70 years later, these countries seem peaceful, recovered, and thriving.
My big takeaway was that everybody can be courageous and brave in their own way, given their own circumstances and abilities. Everyone has sacrifices, and that it is helpful to keep in mind those much less fortunate when going through a difficult time. Vianne’s strong, quiet persona allowed her daughter to develop and grow, and they way she bore her burdens and rebelled in her small way produced important results. The book is very well-written, and I’ll admit to having teared up at least a couple times. I am glad to know it is based on true stories, and will remember the vivid challenges of life under dictatorial rule for a long time.