I had seen this book wherever I went, had heard about it on a podcast, and had seen it on many lists of books to read in 2015. When it was a Good Reads winner for Historical Fiction, I figured it was about time I finally picked this book up to see what it was all about.
The story takes place in France during World War II, largely in the small village of Carriveau, but dabbles in Paris as well. It follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who have very different lives and beliefs. Vianne, the eldest sister, is a wife and mother, who watches her husband go off to war, believing that the French would be swiftly victorious. Isabelle, just 18 years old, is impetuous, and fearing the worst, prepares for the devastation of war. While Vianne tries to stay unnoticeable and provide for herself and her young daughter as the Nazi’s invade their quiet village, Isabelle finds herself joining the rebellion, having no regard for the danger it puts herself or her family in, in order to save the lives of downed fighter pilots. The story follows the two sisters from the beginning to the very bitter end of the war, and explores the lengths someone will go to in order to stay true to their beliefs, and more importantly, stay alive.
After reading this book, I can see why it was the Good Reads winner. I seem to gravitate towards World War II stories, and this was a book that did not disappoint. Hannah really has a gift for bringing the reader along with the story, and making you feel as if you were there. She made the war come to life in a way which is both brilliant and nerve wracking. I loved that the story spanned the length of the war. It was fascinating to watch the slow invasion of the Nazi’s, how gentle they were despite taking possession of homes, and rationing food and goods. When the war was no longer in favor of the Germans, they take their frustrations out on the French villagers, becoming angry and violent. Hannah really makes you feel how terrifying it must have been and how desperate people must have become during the war in real life. It became difficult to remember this was a fiction novel, and these people did not really exist, though they could have.
What I found most thought-provoking was how the characters, however so minor they may have been, responding to the actions of the Germans, and the war as a whole. Some, like Isabelle, remembered World War I, and desperately prepare for the worst. Some, like Vianne, remembered the war as well, and feel there is no possible way it could happen again. There are a number of references to “collaborators”, who tried to win the favor of the Germans by telling secrets and tidbits of information they thought useful, giving up people they knew, their friends and family, in hopes of surviving just a little bit longer. The book makes you think about what you would do in their shoes if you were to be put in such an impossible position.
Every now and then, the story flashes forward to “present” time, in 1995, where an elderly woman is leaving her long loved home for a retirement home. I always love when the story does these flashes, and it added a very powerful edge to the story. The novel did not end the way I was suspecting, it was better, and it made me cry. This is one of those novels that really sticks with you, and it gives me goosebumps just remembering it to write this review. It is definitely the fast front runner for my favorite novel of the year.