The Nightingale Book Summary - The Nightingale Book explained in key points
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The Nightingale summary

Kristin Hannah

A Novel

4.9 (10 ratings)
23 mins
5 key ideas
Audio & text

What is The Nightingale about?

The Nightingale (2015) is a historical novel telling the often-neglected story of those left behind when soldiers go off to war. Set in northwestern France during World War II and told through the eyes of two sisters, this sweeping saga reveals the hidden horrors, and heroism, of the survivors.

About the Author

Kristen Hannah is the New York Times best-selling author of many books, including numerous historical novels. Several, including The Nightingale, are being adapted for film and television by media companies such as Sony and Netflix.

Table of Contents

    The Nightingale
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    The Long Shadow of War

    Our tale opens twice. First, in 1995 in Oregon, as an elderly woman retrieves a chest of memories from the attic that hint at her early life in France. A life her adult son seems to know nothing about. Then, in flashback, in late summer of 1939 and the small town of Carriveau, France. 

    We meet Vianne Mauriac, a mother and school teacher with a challenging past. As a young girl she’d seen her poet father come back from fighting in World War I a bitter, broken alcoholic. When Vianne’s mother died shortly after, he abandoned Vianne and her sister, four-year-old Isabelle, to a loveless foster home.

    Vianne soon married schoolmate Antoine and had a daughter. But her sister Isabelle became a rebellious girl and teen, sent away to boarding school after boarding school, escaping to return to her father in Paris, only to be sent away again.

    Against this tragic backdrop, the first rumors of war quickly become reality and Vianne’s husband Antoine is mobilized to the front. Isabelle is expelled from another boarding school and returns to Paris to convince her father to let her stay. But when the Germans overrun the French Army and the Nazis are marching toward Paris, he sends Isabelle to Vianne in Carriveau.

    Isabelle's journey quickly becomes harrowing. As millions flee on foot, bombing from German planes turns the refugees into targets. The injured and starving are women, children, and the elderly. They sleep in open fields and steal food in desperation from gardens along the way – including Vianne’s.

    Isabelle meets an enigmatic young stranger, Gaëtan, also fleeing Paris. He helps her survive the dangerous journey and listens to her plans to become part of the resistance. They share a first kiss on arrival in Carriveau. He then promptly disappears.

    The estranged sisters begin a tense reunion. Isabelle rages that French forces have surrendered, abandoning citizens to Nazi occupation. Vianne hopes for the best, thinking surrender means French soldiers will come home. Instead, the Germans march into Carriveau and take over.

    After Isabelle hides the family valuables in a secret cellar in the barn, the situation takes a dark turn. German officials announce all radios must be turned in, that all food will be rationed, windows blacked out, and a strict curfew enforced. 

    As they discuss the news, a German officer, Captain Beck, arrives and announces that he will be staying in their home.


    Setting the entire novel in flashback, without a clue as to who is remembering these events, starts the story off on a note of mystery. It also personalizes the deep dive into the histories of our two main characters – relating the sisters’ personal experiences with the costs of war and tragedy, revealing how it shaped their opposing characters.

    Their trauma over their father’s dramatic change after fighting in World War I, the death of their mother, and their abandonment as young girls foreshadows events to come. In response, Vianne has created her own little family, albeit with a sorrowful recent history of miscarriage and pregnancy loss. Isabelle has become an idealistic and strong-willed rebel, still valiantly trying to win her father’s love.

    Their personal history explains the extraordinary tension that existed between France and Germany before the breakout of the Second World War. The wounds are still fresh, the trauma of the Great War is still resonating. This explains the raw terror that saw millions fleeing ahead of the German army on foot.

    Vianne’s confidence in the decision to surrender and negotiate stems from the French victory in the previous war. Isabelle’s feelings of betrayal at the French surrender and her intense hatred of the German Army, relate more directly to her father’s transformation and rejection than geo-global politics.

    The fictional village of Carriveau, nestled in the Loire Valley close to Tours, is also established as a strategic location because of a local airfield. This explains the military occupation of a small town, the strict rules for the population, and German officers taking over local homes. Captain Beck’s presence in Vianne’s home exposes her vulnerability. Without the protection of a husband, she’s powerless to do anything except try and keep her family alive.

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    Who should read The Nightingale

    • Historical fiction buffs looking for a well-told tale from a new angle
    • Literature lovers craving epic stories of survival
    • Anyone interested in the true costs of war on all fronts

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