In a word: Devastating
I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. But, the setting is France during World War II, so you know it’s not going to be an upbeat beach read. This is the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, each of whom faces her own struggle to survive.
In German occupied France, food is scarce. French police cannot be trusted to protect their own citizens. Men are sent to hopeless battles, and women and children are not safe in their own homes. Neighbors snitch. Politicians capitulate. Friends disappear. The details of this novel are a reminder that war is hell, even when the fighting is far away. And in an environment of fear, corruption, and desperation, human relationships are complicated.
On a most personal level, reading novels like this is always helpful in a shaming kind of way; “experiencing” the suffering of others offers healthy perspective. It helps me realize the smallness of my daily complaints (Can’t lose 5 pounds of baby weight! Grocery store out of 50% less sodium green beans! Ugh, where are my Tic Tacs?). I also am reminded what a bubble of extravagant prosperity I live in, and without which I would probably die. Were scarcity to enter my world in such a way that I depended on my own canning to survive the winter, for example, my family and I would starve. The contrast between Vianne’s life and mine makes me feel humble and grateful.
It’s hard to read stories like this where evil is so stark. Tales of brutality and terror are easier to stomach when they happened long ago; I can write it off as “another time,” perhaps even feel that it’s only to be expected among primitive, uncivilized peoples. But stories of World War I and II are especially stomach-wrenching for me: these are people so much like us, who live in a recognizable world that is suddenly turned upside down. I think this is why novels from this time period are so powerful: against the backdrop of a horrifying moral landscape, stories of hope and human triumph shine even brighter.