Just to clarify: it’s me that failed, not my book club. I intended to finish Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale before Thursday night rolled around, but we all know about good intentions and the roads they pave. With my book club’s permission, I took notes instead. Here’s what they said about a book that elicited strong feelings; you’ll understand that certain quantities of wine had been consumed before we sat down at the table for dinner and rowdy book talk.
At her website, Kristin Hannah describes The Nightingale as “An epic love story and family drama set at the dawn of World War II. A profound and compelling portrait of two ordinary French women living in a city under siege and in a country at war, where surviving sometimes means doing the unthinkable.” Our conversation may help you decide if this book is right for you.
Discussion began strong. “I stayed up 3 nights in a row past midnight reading, I cried at the end, and I hated every fucking minute of it!” one exclaimed. “The anachronisms! The emotional manipulation!”
“You couldn’t suspend disbelief,” a friend observed….
“No! I couldn’t suspend disbelief!”
“Aren’t a pitcher and a ewer the same thing?” another chimed in, asking the question hypothetically. “A pitcher and a ewer are definitely the same thing, and so why would she say that ‘a pitcher and a ewer stood on the dresser.’ Terrible editing!”
“Parts of it read like a Harlequin romance, like when she wore her winter white turtleneck and white slacks and swept her hair back.”
“She talked a lot about her frizzy hair during the war.”
“Do you really think people were worrying about their hair?”
“And sometimes she’d use the same words over and over, like ‘cobbled together.’”
“I don’t think the guy would have had antibiotics in his pocket. They had barely been discovered.”
“I don’t think they had shower curtains in France then.”
For a while, there was general venting around the table.
Over time, it did emerge that The Nightingale had some strong admirers as well. “I loved it!” said one of our most demanding readers. She read us the first few sentences…
If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation.
“I think we are hungry for stories like this,” she said. “It’s about human relationships during a period of war. What do you do when you are forced to live with the enemy?”
“Why do you think people like stories about World War II so much?”
“It’s the last war where good and evil were so clear.”
“Or at least, in hindsight we can say that. Maybe in hindsight some of the other wars will seem a lot clearer too.”
“Every time I read another book on World War II, I understand more the tension between love and war. I learned more about the French resistance and gained a little more perspective from this book.”
“I liked the character development. It wasn’t always what you expected.”
Discussion veered into the territory of All the Light We Cannot See and how The Nightingale shared one important perspective with it: the recognition that there can be good individuals within an evil system.
The question of moral courage is raised in both books – and the complexities of moral courage. Just like if a Zombie Apocalypse happened, one friend suggested. “Would you hide or fight the zombies? As a mother, I think I would hide from the zombies, because I would need to protect my children. But if I didn’t have children, I think I would fight the zombies.”
Another friend mentioned that she’s been watching a Netflix series, “Turn,” that considers many of the same issues raised in The Nightingale, except set during the American Revolution (What is it like to be a loyalist, a patriot, or somewhere in between?)
In the end, there was some general agreement around the table that The Nightingale is a page turner, a beach book with substance, perhaps over-hyped, but with its merits and pleasures as well as its aggravations. The most damning comment I heard was that “this was a great story, but she was not the person to tell it.”
You can also find further thoughts about The Nightingale at Bacon from Sine Thieme and Marion Herndon.
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1. We had an edifying discussion of chilblains, which one character gets in the book and one book club member also has. “They are sores and they hurt like a mother-,” we learned. “I got them when I was 15 and in Australia with a friend. They were having their worst winter in something like 50 years. The friend’s parents took me to their doctor, who was a little old man. He said he hadn’t seen chilblains since World War II.” (Once you have them, they don’t ever completely go away. They can be dormant if you are careful, but they can flare up again in the cold.)
2. We veered into a discussion of the incredible power of individual words, such as being a “Muslim” or an “Islamist.” One person observed that teenagers, perhaps due to texting, are very sensitive to the power and efficiency of words. “Every word is a suitcase,” it was noted, in a smart turn of phrase. As an example: THOT, when you are texting, means “That Ho Over There.”
3. We learned that several members of book club had not read The Color Purple or The Chosen, to general consternation.
4. We learned that one member of book club had somehow missed To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, and the table erupted in horror. There might have been heckling involved. One friend’s take on Go Set A Watchman: “It was like seeing Harper Lee in her underwear.”
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To my book club: Please forgive me for anything I’ve gotten wrong! Thank you for letting me be a scribe for the evening. Please correct the record in the comments if need be! And readers: please let me know if you’d like another dispatch from book club from time to time… I’d love one from yours!
Jennifer, you make us sound so entertaining! To clarify the pitcher/ewer consternation: the author describes a wash stand in the bed chamber as having a pitcher and an ewer. Any reader of historical – even Harlequin – fiction knows that a wash stand has an ewer (or pitcher) and a basin (or bowl). A pitcher and an ewer do not a wash stand make! Cue the fact checker/editor!
I love that you know this! From all your harlequin reading no doubt! Thx K. Xo
I’m one of those that LOVED this book. I couldn’t put it down. Could be that it followed a really bad book that shall remain so nameless that I’ve forgotten what it is, but there you go. Or could be that it was just the thing for me and as my sainted mother says….’difference of opinion makes horse races.’
Love wise mothers like yours! And so happy to hear what you thought of it!! Xo
Please read James Ellroy’s My Dark Places next. I would love to read the meeting transcript.
Game on! I’ll try to get it on our list!! Thx Matt! Xo
Jennifer – Thank you for documenting so aptly what was an all-over-the-place discussion! Also thank you for leaving out the names to protect those of us who might or might not be guilty of not ever reading some classic and still acquiring a BA in English from Vanderbilt. It is a tough crowd!
Laughing!! Yes we had a free range discussion last night for sure! Will always protect the confidentiality of certain educational omissions. 🙂 xo!
Oh, these books that get such buzz! I felt like it read like a Harlequin romance. The writing bugged with romantic and tragic cliques. This was not a favorite of mine. Loved your notes, though, Jennifer!
This is really a love it or hate it book for many! For sure not the book for everyone. It was actually quite nice just to listen to my book club talk about it, without having strong opinions myself. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I will do it again! I hope all is well with you, and thank you so much for your comment, Tracy! Xo
I loved this. Having read (and reviewed:-) the book, I can feel for both passionate sides. The ewer/pitcher issue escaped me, must have flown right by it. I feel that that first sentence you highlighted was the strongest of the whole book, and it went a little downhill from there. It could have been better told, I agree. The plot didn’t really develop in a satisfying way. But still, got me thinking about character and what i might have done… I loved getting a glimpse of your book club in this manner!
Several people said EXACTLY what you did – that the opening was the strongest moment of the book, and that the book couldn’t sustain its ambition or power. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book club report! And I was so grateful for your absolutely terrific review last year. Xo
That is one fine-looking book club! Thanks for letting us be flies on the wall. This could be a web series.
Don, you are as always both kind and charming. I had so much fun writing this that I’ve considered not reading any more books ever for book club, and simply reporting. :). Xo
Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one to see this books imperfections
I really enjoyed reading your post and am glad I’m not the only one not loving that book. I couldn’t get past all the anachronisms and plot holes. Some examples that made me want to toss the book across the room: Hannah forgot to age one sister, while adding years to the other. She forgot she said it was snowing and mentioned roses climbing a garden wall. Viviane was a teenage mother but also went through college with her Jewish girlfriend. That would never have happened in those times. Viviane and her husband had modest employment but lived quite a luxurious lifestyle. Women drivers were unusual then but the younger sister somehow does quite a bit of driving without it being shown as exceptional. Also, a child is shot down apparently so words of pathos can be forced from her mouth. (Wasn’t I brave back there?). Emotional manipulation much? Plus, I felt a lack of flow to the story. At one point Viviane’s family is hungry and forgets that they have chickens in the yard. They also have a garden of vegetables. A hungry hoard of people pass through their property. The starving throng leaves litter but there is no mention of whether the crowd ate the vegetables. If you are concerned about starving wouldn’t that be the first thing you would look for? Anything left of our crop? Frenchmen who were hanged and still had berets on their heads. I guess berets are inevitable because (sarcasm here) all Frenchmen wear them but who put them back on their heads post-mortem? I found the younger sister annoying, flouncing angrily around the German soldiers when they arrived in town, risking getting her family shot to display a little sass. And, later, she disengaged from a dispirited crowd to quickly encounter an attractive man in the woods, a man ready to offer her a hot meal from his campfire. This is the Danielle Steele version of World War II. But, perhaps, that explains the nove’ls popularity. Mon dieu!
Oh, my. I had to read this book as an assignment for my MFA in Creative Writing. I wrote a scathing reading response to it. Hackneyed, full of anachronisms, plot holes, etc., all mentioned above. Where the hell was her editor? Fact checker? For my thesis, I wrote a book about my father’s time as a Flight Surgeon in WWII in the Pacific Theater. Hint: antibiotics were just barely being used and they came from America, not Britain. Was it really necessary for Ms. Hannah to use some form of the word “clatter” 36 times in the book (yes, I counted using my Kindle app)? She managed to shoehorn nearly every event/situation/cliché from the war into one small French town. I had a hard time finishing it. (Disclaimer: I’m a librarian and former history teacher, so these things probably bothered me more than Hannah’s usual audience.)