There's a frame story that begins with an old woman, in the US in 1995, preparing to move into assisted living, and quietly remembering her long-ago memories from the war as she goes through her possessions.
At the beginning of World War II, French sisters Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol are estranged from each other and from their father, Julian Rossignol. The family was strained when Julian returned from the Great War shell-shocked, and shattered when his wife, the girls' mother, died a few years later. Isabelle was four, Vianne was fourteen, and Vianne was grieving too much to be the emotional refuge her sister needed when their father sent them to live with a stranger in the family's country home in the village of Carriveau. When the war starts, Vianne is still living in that family home, with her husband Antoine, and their daughter Sophie. Isabelle, now eighteen, meanwhile, is getting herself kicked out of yet another school and sent back to her father, who does not want her to stay in their Paris apartment.
When Antoine and the other military-age men of Carriveau get mobilized, Vianne is distressed but confident that the French army will be victorious and Antoine will be home soon. It's a shock when the Maginot Line does not hold, much of the army become prisoners of war, and German soldiers move in to occupy France. With German soldiers in Paris, Julian, never happy that his daughter had descended on him, packs her off to what he hopes is the greater safety of quiet Carriveau. The evacuation of Paris doesn't go well, and Isabelle winds up walking much of the way, meeting up with a young man named Gäetan,
Once in Carriveau, the sisters cope with an increasingly oppressive German occupation, with a German officer billeted in their house, rationing that diverts most food to the German military, and ever tighter, more dangerous restrictions on the French. Vianne is determined to keep their profile low and survive till the war ends and Antoine comes home. Isabelle,headstrong, proud, and brave, is hard for Vianne to contain. Then Isabelle quietly joins the resistance, goes back to Paris, and embarks on a very dangerous project.
Vianne, meanwhile, finds her fundamental decency at war with her desire to keep her head down and keep everyone safe. In time, she has her own dangerous project. And neither sister knows what their father is up to.
We don't know, until the end, if the woman in the frame story is Vianne, Isabelle, or even perhaps Sophie. We don't know who survives. Isabelle and Vianne both run great risks and have terrifying experiences. It's a fascinating and moving story. I liked both sisters; each is in her own way strong, brave, loyal, and smart. They're both flawed and make some real mistakes. In the end, the reader can't help caring deeply for both of them.
I received a free audio copy of this book from the Ford Audiobook Club.