Pan, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-4472-8307-2
Historical Fiction, 2015
This month, the TBR Challenge theme is a critically acclaimed or widely recommended book. Well, I’ve deliberately distanced myself from the online romance community but even I heard amazing things about this book. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is probably too new to be considered TBR pile material, but come on, you don’t want me to read a new adult story, do you? Those seem to be the only type of books everyone seems to be talking about these days, shudder.
This book is set during the Nazi occupation of France – thanks to the dependence of that country on the history book punchline known as the Maginot Line – and chronicles the lives of two sisters.
Vianne Mauriac’s husband is conscripted, leaving her to fend for herself and her daughter for the first time in her life. She married young, and her husband made all the big decisions, so Vianne has conditioned herself to believe that she is incapable of being anything more than a mother and wife. She will learn the hard way that some of the most terrifying – yet courageous – thing a woman in her shoes can do is to survive, for her daughter if not for herself.
Meanwhile, Isabelle, her sister, sees the war in stark black and white lines like only a sheltered young lady who is convinced that she knows everything would. For a long time, she behaves in a recklessly stupid way that may make readers want to grab a gun from a nearest Nazi and shoot that stupid girl dead and then a few more times for good measure, but I can see where she is coming from. I still think she’s dumb and stupid, and she is also responsible, albeit indirectly, for putting her sister under the control of a brutal Nazi officer, so if I were Vianne, I probably take a while longer to think of Isabelle in heroic light. Sure, Isabelle joins the Resistance, and… okay, she makes up for her initial marathon of stupidity with her courage in the later parts of the book, but still, I’m sure Jesus would understand if someone slaps her a few times for the pain she put me through in the earlier parts of the book.
As I read this book, I can’t help hearing the titular song from the Hong Kong musical by Raymond To, I Have a Date with Spring, in my head. That play was later made into a movie and, even later, a crappy TV series. The reason why I think of that song, and the play, is because while there is completely zero similarity between this book and that play, both could be sisters in spirit. Like the play, this book uses a turbulent point in history to showcase the lives of women who have to find the courage within to survive and overcome the odds. And both of them are very derivative works that could still leave painful welts on the heart. In the play, it’s the haunting titular song by Alice Lau – a deceptively serene and even uplifting song with some of the most haunting, heartbreaking undercurrents in every syllable of Chung Chi Wing’s lyrics. In this book, it’s the last few chapters, brimming with melodrama and sentimentality that nonetheless make me wipe furiously at the tears running down my cheeks.
I read this book at a Starbucks and I only had some tissues with me. The whole thing was embarrassing and some people seated around me gave me odd looks. It was a glorious experience still, as I always love a book that can make me feel, as opposed to just making me read.
If this book has a weakness, it’s the fact that it’s not even close to being groundbreaking. Sure, this one is set at a very troubled time (to put it mildly), but the way the story develops is no different from how a hundred Hong Kong soap operas set in all kinds of war had done in the past and will do in the future. It’s not even a Hong Kong thing – it’s probably an universal kind of derivative, as the tropes are very familiar, starting from the beginning when Vianne and her husband are portrayed to be in a perfect marriage, the two of them exchanging “I love you!” and all. Surprise, she learns that he’s not coming back anytime soon after – bet no one could see that coming. And so forth – there are many elements here that are very standard kinds of tropes that would be familiar to both readers of romance and wartime fiction. The two women are amalgamation of traits typical of wartime heroines in stories of this sort, and a part of me feels that Isabelle’s transformation from “Why isn’t that wretch dead yet?” to noble and tragic heroine of war is a journey from A to Z with a dozen alphabets skipped along the way.
In fact, I can even go as far as to say that the two ladies actually have it easy in some contrived ways – both quickly find men that inexplicably feel compelled to protect them for a long time, thus shielding them from the worst of the hell that could befall them during this long period of time. It’s no coincidence that I start crying when these two women lose the protection of those men and start putting on the Joan of Arc show for me to go eek-eek-eek over.
The story has bookends – it starts and ends using the same plot device used by I Have a Date with Spring and countless other “Survivor of troubled times remembers the past… and those that were lost!” stories – but I am always a sucker for that plot device. My brain cringes at the sentimental final chapter, but my heart laughs and cries with the heroine over every word in that chapter. It’s the same reason that my eyes were all blurred with tears by the time I finished watching I Have a Date with Spring – like that play and movie, this book doesn’t offer anything new or fresh, but the author succeeds very well in playing with my emotions and making me cry. Okay, not just cry, she practically rips my heart out and stomps on it in those last few chapters of the book. And yes, that is a not-so-subtle warning to you guys that this book is considered historical fiction (not romance) for a very good reason.
I cried. I suppose that counts for something, okay, a lot. Even if I will forget about these characters a few weeks down the road, I will always have Starbucks, I Have a Date with Spring in my mind, and Vianne’s thoughts that close this book.