Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Nightingale Discussion Guide

Book: The Nightingale
Author:  Kristin Hannah
Edition:  Hardcover St. Martin’s Press, 2015

The range of storytelling in The Nightingale from WWII to multiple, complicated relationships, to the French resistance, may feel too all-encompassing for a book discussion.  Perhaps picking one or two themes in advance of your book group to focus on will help keep your discussion centered.

There is plenty to keep a book group talking for hours especially if your group choses to link the novel to the present and consider how each of us sees courage, views death, or holds onto secrecy.

Internet Resources

‘When Things Go Missing’,  a poignant New Yorker article on death and loss, offers a beautifully written perspective paralleling themes in the novel from death, to courage, to “in the end: we live all along the way.” A quick read, the article can offer a starting point for bringing many of the novel’s themes into the present.

Sometimes hearing the author’s approach to a novel aligns with what we read and sometimes not. The author’s central question in writing this book as she describes in a Goodreads interview is:
"When would I do this? When would you be willing to risk your child's life as well as your own?"
Is there a question that sums up the essence of the book for you?

Major Characters

Vianne Mauriac: Older sister living in Carriveau, France during WWII.
Sophie Mauriac: Vianne’s 8-year old daughter who grows into a teenager during WWII.
Antoine Mauriac: Vianne’s husband who is a prisoner of war throughout most of the novel.
Isabelle Rossignol: Vianne’s younger sister, 18-years old at the outbreak of the war, who takes on the name Juliette Gervaise as she leads downed pilots out of occupied France over the Pyrenees.
Rachel de Champlain: Vianne’s best friend and a Jew.
Sarah de Champlain: Rachel’s daughter and Sophie’s best friend.
Ariel (Ari) de Champlain: Rachel’s young son adopted and renamed Daniel Antoine by Vianne.
Julien Rossignol: Vianne and Isabelle’s father, whom they call Papa.
Gaetan Dubois (Gaet): Young man in the resistance who Isabelle falls in love with.
Captain Wolfgang Beck: First German soldier to billet at Vianne’s home.
Didier: fighter in Carriveau French resistance.
Henri Navarre: fighter in Carriveau in French resistance.
Anouk: fighter in Paris in French resistance.

Discussion Themes

A few themes to consider for your book discussion.  You may be more inclined to discuss the historical context of the book or how characters changed over the course of the novel.  Find what works best for your group.

Death and Loss

“Lost. It makes it sounds as if I misplace my loved ones; perhaps I left them where they don’t belong and then turned away, too confused to retrace my steps.” Page 1
This sentiment is beautifully explored by Kathryn Schulz in her article . She reminds us that
“Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend.”
Explore how each character approaches death and loss. 
“Because of them, I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.” Page 438
What emotions did you experience as you read about the death of Sarah, Beck, Papa, Isabelle? What were the common strands in your reaction to their dying, what was distinct? How have you experienced loved ones nearing death? How do you hope to face death?


Each of the main characters holds on to a host of secrets throughout and beyond the war. Right at the start of the novel Isabelle assures Sophie of her ability to keep a secret:
“Me? I am the best of secret keepers.” Page 64
How do the reasons for keeping secrets compare?  
“’Your daughter will not starve this winter, Madame,’ he said. Softly as if it were their secret accord.” Page 178
“He didn’t need to know that Vianne was risking her life, too, couldn’t worry that he would lose both his daughters. Let him think she was as safe as one could be. A coward.” Page 366
I only wanted to protect you.’
‘From the truth?’‘From everything.’” Page 386
Isabelle and I didn’t talk much during the war. She stayed away from me to protect me from the danger of what she was doing. So I didn’t know everything Isabelle had done until she came back from Ravensbruck.’” Page 434
Your father…’ I pause, draw in a breath, Your father. And there it is, the secret that made me bury it all.” Page 438
Which secrets offered protection? Which were harmful? Which both? How do you feel about Vianne’s ultimate secret on the parentage of her son?

What reasons do you have for holding on to secrets?


Each of the resistance fighters along with the French living in Carriveau show extreme courage, fighting for what they believe is right. In war courage is often more clearly recognized, yet courage surrounds us every day. 
“Now she saw the folly of all that, the uselessness. She simply had to dive in.” page 205
When Vianne says good-bye to Ari as he is taken to live with distant family:
“He started to cry, and she pulled him into her arms. It took perhaps the greatest courage of her life to let go of him.” Page 418
How does each character exhibit courage and when does each claim his or her own courage? How do you claim your own courage?

Self-preservation and Love

The choices to protect their children and those they love occur every day during the war. Choices also reflect the individual’s needs—live and death choices like Isabelle and the pilots she is leading continuing to move forward as they struggle over the mountains, as well as choices that are more metaphysical.
“Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you.” Page 126.
Hold Sophie and Antoine and your new baby close, Vianne. Love is such a slippery thing.’” Page 426.
Consider a time you have made a choice to protect someone else and a time to bolster your own needs.  How do those times compare? Which choices do you struggle with more?

Quotes to Ponder

“I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known” Vianne Page 4.
“It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him. All her life she had waited – longed for – people to love her, but now she saw what really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it… Don’t forget me, Isabelle thought.” Page 428.

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