By: Kristin Hannah
Genre: Historical Fiction
I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Add to that multiple points of view and smart writing – I’m sold! I read this book in a week, which isn’t easy to do when you have unneeded interruptions from hungry children. Like they need to eat or something.
- As writers we learn early on that an opening sentence is crucial. Now, Kristin Hannah has been at this for awhile. She’s a pro. She knows how to do this. But let’s imagine what an agent would say upon reading her first sentence, if she were an unpublished author. My guess is: I WANT THIS BOOK. Here’s the sentence: “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.” THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT.
- In the first few pages we are brought into a woman’s home, into her physical and mental struggles. We learn she has a past she hasn’t shared and that the past is almost too hard for her to bear. But who is she?
- We are quickly sent back in time and meet our characters. Hannah is crafty at filling out the characters without throwing too much at us at once. We can see them and know them early on, which sets the story up nicely. Vianne and her husband Antoine are on a picnic with their daughter when they begin to discuss the war: “It wasn’t until late in the day, when Sophie was off with her fishing pole and Antoine was making their daughter a crown of daisies, that he said, ‘Hitler will suck us all into his war soon.'” The juxtaposition of the daisies and the idea of Hitler are stunning. It comes from out of nowhere, but we realize that it actually doesn’t. War is everywhere already.
- The same goes for the scene. This is France at the beginning of WWII. We’ve seen the black and white photos in our history books, but Hannah adds smells and describes tastes and sounds. She turns on all our senses and allows us to fully escape into the story.
- On page 17, Vianne is describing her friend Rachel, whom I immediately love and want as a friend. She describes her by saying, “…with eyebrows that grew faster than a lie and a voice like a foghorn.” I’ve never heard this image for eyebrows and as soon as I read it, it made perfect sense. This is good writing, y’all!
- Death comes from all angles in this story as it does during war. Unfortunately for Vianne, death has been a part of her life since she was child. She has already lost her mother and three children. It’s funny how an inanimate object like a rocking chair can make a person sink into despair. On page 20, “Three lost lives in four years; tiny threaded heartbeats, blue hands. And then, miraculously: a baby who survived. Sophie. There were sad little ghosts caught in the wood grain of that chair, but there were good memories, too.” SAD LITTLE GHOSTS. I have to go cry now.
- On page 31, Isabelle is traveling to stay with her father and she looks out at the passing countryside. What does war do to a place? It hadn’t reached that part of France yet, but it was on its way. Shouldn’t things look different when parts of the world are devastated? When people are suffering and dying? It reminds me of losing a loved one and wondering how the rest of the world can keep going. People still stand in line at the grocery store and eye the gum, they sit at their desks staring at unanswered emails, they chase their kids on the playground. Lives keep going even in the darkest times.
- The pace is quick and war soon finds them. Isabelle, for a number of reasons, is the rebellious one and Vianne remains responsible with a stiff-upper lip. The sister relationship is raw and loving and hurtful. For those reasons, it is completely believable. Rachel steps in at times and becomes an ideal version, the sister that each wants to be for the other.
- The scene where the refugees are banging on the doors of Le Jardin were harrowing. These are the scenes that we struggle the most to recognize during times of war. The innocents. The ones left in the path of violence and destruction and famine.
- Captain Beck. I don’t know, guys. I’m so conflicted by his character. And the thing is we know he was real, he was many men and women caught up in the war. What is right and wrong? Whom do we save? Ourselves? Our families? Strangers? Children? Do we do a little bit of good for some or do the best we can for one? There are times when war is black and white and then there are times when war thrusts people into the morally-grey areas of humanity. And choices have to be made.