When I was a child, we read a story called “The Nightingale.” I remember dreamy, poetic prose telling the tale of a homely songbird that was replaced by a bejeweled imitation. Pinks, silvers, dark browns and blacks dominated the beautiful illustrations: a full moon, a gilded cage, cherry blossoms, silk robes. The back story is that Hans Christian Anderson wrote the fairy tale for Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer dubbed, “The Swedish Nightingale.”
Happily, I was able to relive “The Nightingale,” as a read-aloud story with my fourth-graders. They loved performing the play; the tale had survived a new generation raised with smartphones, iPads, and on-demand TV.
When I picked up Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, I was expecting a similarly romantic story, and romance is certainly a part of this tale; but it is so much more. It is a story that leaves a lasting impression, and gives hope, somehow, by sharing despair. The romance is contrasted with sobering cruelty and bigotry. The novel, like its characters, rises to something special and memorable.
The tale begins slowly, and somewhat predictably sweet, as a family in the French countryside shares picnics of bread and cheese in flower-laden gardens. My first impression was, “No, this book is too cliché, I’m not anticipating getting anything from this writing.”
I was so wrong. A year and a half later, I recall the darkness of the story; and the bright redemption. The heroism and strength of the female characters is inspiring and relevant to current debates about what qualities women bring to the table.
Twists and turns in the story, suspense, scenes of human misery put the bucolic opening scenes of pre-WWII France in the distant memory. No doubt, this is the author’s intention. We see how dramatically the war changed life for everyone, forever.
The main characters are sisters who face life with very different outlooks on life. This doesn’t seem far-fetched to those of us who’ve raised children of such differing personalities that one wonders how they could have emerged from the same gene stew.
And, yet, these sisters show the same backbone, the same instinct to protect human life, and the same reverence for that life.
Like its classic predecessor, The Nightingale speaks to a new generation that has never actually experienced its setting. It illuminates prevailing human incongruities to destroy and preserve; to condemn and cherish; to fear and to defy. It ends up as a story of redemption and hope. Those are sentiments we always welcome, no matter the era.
Have you read this novel? Let us know what you thought!
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