The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleAt the beginning of the year when I was collecting recommendations for my in-person book club, I had several people clamoring for us to read The Nightingale. But even though the book had been out for almost a year, it was still insanely backed up at the library with almost 200 people on hold for it. I kept checking in and checking in and finally there were few enough holds that I felt comfortable making this the book club pick… for August.

Insane, right? I’m guessing that part of the reason it took so long to calm down was the same reason I needed it — it’s a perfect book club book.

The Nightingale tells the story of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters living in France during the German occupation. Vianne watches her husband go off to war, her students dwindle as families leave the city voluntarily and at the hands of the Nazis, her home get taken over by German soldiers, and her daughter grow up in the shadow of the occupation, and she makes it her job to keep her family safe any way she can. Isabelle, the younger sister, wants nothing more than to be someone, and she makes it her goal to join the resistance and work to take down the Nazis in any way that she can.

Reasons to pick this book for your book club:

1. World War II is prime book club fodder, and you know it.
2. A better reason — The Nightingale takes place in occupied France outside of Paris, a place I, for one, haven’t heard too much about in my extensive reading of World War II book club books. It’s fascinating to see how different the attitudes of the soldiers and citizens are compared to novels that take place in England or Germany or the US.
3. It stars two ladies doing the best they can in two wildly different ways. There’s a great discussion to be had about the roles of women at the time and in the present.
4. It’s going to make some people cry, which means plenty of people will show up to your meeting to make sure they weren’t the only ones bawling.

I’m not kidding about number 4. It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, and I saw a lot of the little twists and turns coming (though not all of them, I’ll say) and there were a few parts early on that I could see were meant to make me give a sniffle, and I didn’t cry at them and I was sure this book wasn’t going to make me cry. And then it did, and I was a mess, and my husband was like, seriously, woman, why do you read books that waste our Kleenex, and I was like, shut up and hug me and let me tell you how glad I am that we don’t live in occupied France.

So even though I wasn’t all in from the beginning, this book is definitely on my list of books to recommend to people, and in fact is probably going to be on the list for my library’s book club after I talked it up at a recent meeting. (Thank goodness, that’s one more book I don’t have to read!) If you’re in the market for a moderately depressing but rather fascinating look at life during World War II, this should definitely be on your list.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogOh, book club, you make me read the weirdest things. I only wish I had remembered how astonishingly weird the French are before I, you know, finished this novel.

I think I can be forgiven for this oversight, as the first half of the book is resolutely not weird, it is in fact academic and philosophical and pretentious and really just boring. Then it gets less pretentious and more interesting and even a bit intriguing, and then the weird French-ness kicks in and I am like… oh boy.

So there are these two protagonists, and they both live in this fancy-pants apartment building in Paris. One is the middle-aged concierge who works really really hard to be the most concierge-y concierge who ever was a concierge. Except secretly she’s a lover of culture and philosophy and academia, except even more secretly she enjoys grocery-store mystery novels and action movies. Layers, you see. The other protagonist is a twelve-year-old who lives in the building and who is overly precocious, though she often pretends not to be. Oh, and she’s planning on killing herself on her next birthday more or less because she’s got nothing better to do with her life. As one does.

They do their stuff, blah blah blah, and it may not surprise you to find out that the best part of the novel happens when their paths cross. There are some small interesting bits up to that point — interactions with family and friends and some backstory to spice things up — but of course it’s all leading up to the two meeting.

I must say that even though I enjoyed this part of the novel, and would probably read just that part again, it is apparent that I did not read this book correctly. Someone brought in the publisher’s book group questions and for one, they were all just as snooty sounding as the first half of the book. So we had some trouble discussing those. For two, some of the questions asked questions that made no sense or directly opposed what I thought about the story or the writing. (Particularly, spoiler alert?, one question talked about what a life-affirming book this is, whereas I found it utterly depressing and a bit cynical.) So… yeah. Don’t trust my word on this one?

Also of note is that like Room before it, I half read and half listened to this book, and also like Room the child narrator was so much better rendered in audio than in print. I should probably just start these precocious-kid books in audio from the start, yes?

Recommendation: Good for a book club (lots to discuss!), perfect for college students who need something to discuss at 3am.

Rating: 6/10