I studied French and German at Uni, have always been fascinated and appalled by the Vichy regime and occupied France in the Second World War and love novels like Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray that take place in this period of history. This novel therefore looked to be right up my street – well I did choose it as my Book Club choice for the month after all – and it thankfully didn’t disappoint.
A New York Times bestseller, and written by Kristin Hannah, a new author for me, it takes place in Paris, Carriveau in the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, and tells a really beautiful and powerful story of two sisters living a very different war and pushed to the limits of what they will do to survive. We see Vianne battle on the land, on her family farm, with no money and through bitter winters, as her village is inhabited by the German SS and Officers are billeted at her farm. She has to live with the enemy, trying to protect her daughter at all cost as well as her neighbour and best friend Sarah, a Jewish mum who is fighting for her life and her kids as the abominable Final Solution to exterminate all Jews marches forward and reaches their village.
We then see her younger, impetuous sister Isabelle who at the age of 18 is searching for love, acceptance and purpose, and after meeting (and falling in love with) a member of the Resistance, realises that she has found this and risks her life time and time again to save countless lives during the war.
Their stories are intertwined, and their once fractured relationship heals as they come together at points during the story, realising that they are fighting very different wars and that they didn’t really know each other before.
So, what did I love about this book?
I loved that the story was told through the lens of two women; that we saw the women’s war, that is not often at the fore when we remember the World Wars but was so real and just as brutal in a different way.
I loved that the story was told respectfully. After reading a little about the author it’s clear that Hannah researched the subject extensively, felt a great responsibility to tell this story accurately and sensitively and I think that she did a great job. There were parts of the story that I would have loved to have seen expanded, namely the latter third, where we start to see the horrors of the concentration camp and their subsequent liberation. I felt like it was skimmed over a little and there could have been several more chapters telling that part of the tale but on reflection, maybe that was enough; maybe we’d seen enough, and the story was about what came before, and not where it unfortunately ended.
I loved the characters; from the inherently different sisters to the courageous children, to their broken father who came out of the Great War a very different man, is fighting battles on many emotional fronts and fighting for not only his country but his daughters’ forgiveness and his redemption.
I loved the dynamic of experiencing the story through sisters; separated by years and life experience, ideals and circumstance and treading their own paths towards survival, love and redemption.
And I loved that I cared – and was a blotchy, teary mess when reading the final pages – which is testimony to the power of the storytelling, the characters and my investment in the story; I didn’t want it to end, just as much as I did because I was desperate to find out whether the ending could possibly be a happy one.
And it made me look within, which the best writing always does. ‘In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.’ This opening sentence stopped me in my tracks and stayed with me throughout the book, getting to the heart of what I always think about and hope when I read novels like this; if I were living in these times and with these atrocities, would I be as brave? I hope so.