Enticing Writing or Emotional Manipulation?

Published by Erica on

Thoughts on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Overview: The Nightingale is a historical fiction romance, set in WWII occupied France. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are swept into a tenuous world where uncertainty, fear, and secrets define their futures. Vianne must consider the safety and survival of her small family once her husband is conscripted and a German officer commandeers their home for his lodgings. Isabelle, on the other hand, seems to throw safety and survival to the wind, concentrating her passions on the Resistance efforts.

I read this book over the holidays and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since! When I was deep in reading it, I felt pulled into the narrative, eagerly devouring pages to see what would happen next in the story. Several times the story brought me to tears – deep, heart-rending moments where I simply could not ignore the emotions of the characters because they were rendered so poignantly on the page. 

And yet…

When it came time to give my rating and review, after staying up late one night to finish this gripping book, I was completely torn. Was this a 5 star story, holding me tightly in its well-worded pages and wringing me out emotionally? Or was this a 3 star story telling an average plot focused on romance rather than history, purposefully playing on my emotions to elicit tears? Does The Nightingale get its glory from its accurate portrayals of the time period, or does it succeed due to emotional manipulation? 

In the moment of reading, The Nightingale seems like an expertly crafted tale. And Kristin Hannah undeniably writes with purpose and pathos. just don’t think this book holds up under literary scrutiny. Historical fiction writing spans the gamut of faithfulness to history, with some books so well-researched they are nearly authentic portrayals, and other books merely historical fiction because they are set in a recognizable history. I felt like the purpose of this book fell on the latter option – recognizable history that serves as an interesting background for a romance. And because it trades so fully on the gutting experiences of WWII, compared to Hannah’s other tales about the Alaska wilderness or Dust Bowl-era America, I can’t overlook how the history becomes appropriated to enhance a fictional romance.

Most of the impulse and action comes from Isabelle, her love for Gaetan, and disagreements with her sister about following that love (or not). For me, this cheapens the historical setting and makes the emotions of the time serve fictional romantic ends, rather than illustrate the reality of the past. It’s as if Kristin Hannah wanted to make me cry simply to elicit that emotion for her own ends – she even says as much in her discussion questions at the end of the book! I enjoy a cathartic cry and freely add my tears when the horrors of humanity feel unspeakable. There are moments of honest sadness in this story, but they are outweighed by the constructed scenarios where Kristin Hannah wants her readers to cry for the characters, not for the history they are surrounded in. 

I don’t love a book that tries to emotionally manipulate me. And I definitely don’t want to cheapen the reality of the past, which I felt like happened a few times in this novel. Not every reader will take umbrage at how Kirstin Hannah uses the past to elevate our emotions about a love story, and she still brings compelling tensions to the surface throughout this story. But I hope we as readers would all be mindful that some stories are crafted to teach and instruct, while others are written to elicit specific emotional responses from the us. Having peeked behind that curtain, I expect my experience with future Kristin Hannah novels will carry more wariness and scrutiny. 

What do you think? Is it possible for historical fiction writing to cross a line and appropriate history simply for an emotional reaction?


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