“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
This is one of the best books I have read in a very, very long time. If I could give extra stars to this, make it six or seven stars, I would. And truth be told, I did cry during this book, cried as my heart was wrenched out of my chest, cried as I remembered first loves of my own, cried for ever thinking my own life was hard, cried and cried and cried.
I also cheered for the characters and commiserated with them and sat in wonderment of their bravery, which made me wonder exactly how well I would stand up in the same situations.
This is the story of women during war. It is World War II, in occupied France. Most of the men are gone – fighting, dead, or prisoners of war. And the women left behind have to deal with Germans on their doorsteps and in their marketplaces. Germans making lists of people’s political ideologies and religions. Germans drinking the coffee and eating the bread while they watch their children starve. Germans in their homes.
“In wars, there are battles and skirmishes. Losses along the way. But our men will never let the Germans win. We will never give up.” She moved closer to her students. “But we have a part to play, too; those of us left behind. We have to be brave and strong, too, and not believe the worst. We have to keep on with our lives so our fathers and brothers and … husbands have lives to come home to, oui?”
In the heart of the occupation are two sisters; daughters of a man that was irreparably changed by the first world war. Vianne, the older of the two, is a mother determined to keep the home fires burning for her daughter, and for her husband who has marched off to war herself. Isabelle, the younger, burns with the ideological fires of youth and determination. She is bound to resist, bound to fight, anxious to make a difference and to rally against the Germans in any way she can. When Vianne is forced to board a German officer, Isabelle determines to leave – certain her presence will only alert the German officer to her true feelings and cause the downfall of her sister’s family, but also determined to get out into the fight herself. It tears the two apart, but in the end shows them how much the same they really are.
“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
This is truly a remarkable book. The characters are amazing, brilliantly developed, achingly real. The plotlines twist and turn, making you sob one moment and sit anxiously on the edge of your sofa biting your nails the next, only to have you laughing before you’re done. The research that went into this book must have been astronomical because the little details are so incredibly telling.
Hannah is a fantastic storyteller. She is also a remarkable writer. Oftentimes the two things don’t go hand in hand. The prose here is delicately wrought one moment, and slams straight into your heart the next. Her turn of phrase is so beautiful that I re-read passages over and over again just to experience it all again.
And one of the best parts of this novel, is that while it is a book about war, the author has also managed to make this a book about love.
“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.”
Seamlessly intertwined with the war, is the love in the lives of the characters. The love of daughters for their father, and sisters for one another. The love of mothers for their children. The love of wives for their husbands. First love. The love of friendship. The love of country and home. The expression of love via sacrifice.
And because it’s about love, it’s not always happy.
“Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.”
You’re going to need someone nearby to hug when you’re done with this one.