This summer we witnessed the 75th anniversary of France’s surrender to Germany early in WWII. This novel was perfectly timed to help me imagine the lives of the French people who had to live with their government’s decision. Vianne and Isabelle lost their mother between the wars, after their father had been damaged by his time in the trenches. He was unable to parent them and Vianne proved unable to fill her mother’s shoes for her younger sister. Isabelle repeatedly rebelled and her rebellious streak continues when her father sends her to the rural village of Carriveau to live with her sister and niece, particularly when the German troops march into town. Before long, Isabelle is back in Paris helping downed pilots escape across the Pyrenees to the British consulate. Vianne finds herself challenged by the German’s policies towards the Jews, one of whom is her best friend. Vianne has to decide where she will draw her moral line and saving Jewish children pulls at her heart. Both sisters become heroines and, as the war wears on, their suffering increases as one is captured and the other is abused by a sadistic German officer.
The novel has its share of women’s lit drama, but as the story wore on, it pushed me to think of how I would respond in a similar situation. It also made me angry with those in our culture who mock the French as cowards. My only complaint was a story line with the first occupying German officer that was left incomplete. I will forever wonder what happened there.