Disclaimer: I have not written about books in any formal capacity since the late 90’s when I minored in English in college. These days, I mostly read, and occasionally am fortunate enough to discuss what I’ve read in a very superficial way with one or two friends. So my reviews will probably sound amateurish compared to Bethany’s, whose life has been books and reading and talking about them for quite a long time (she’s so lucky). Bear with me! I’ll remember how to write about literature as I go along. 🙂
Let me preface this review by saying that Tatiana de Rosnay’s very popular novel Sarah’s Key has qualities that I generally am drawn to in my fiction: multiple stories in different time periods (I think of this as plural narrative, but am not sure if this is a technical term) that somehow come together; a story of a downtrodden/oppressed people; a mystery. Sarah’s Key has all of these things that I generally love. So I should love this book? Right? My answer to this questions is “Eh.”
This book definitely has promise. There’s two strong female lead characters (I love that). Sarah from the 1942 narrative is a plucky, brave, young Jewish girl who survives tragedy to find a new home and happiness. Sort of. Julia from the early 21st century narrative is a strong, independent 40-something woman with a rewarding career, a lovely daughter, and a supporting husband. Sort of.
The historical event that this story centers around is the roundup of French Jews by the French police in July, 1942. They were gathered and held in the Vel’ d’Hiv, a stadium for bicycle races, for days, with minimal food and water, nowhere to sleep, and no bathrooms. Granted, France was under German occupation at this time, but the point was that French soldiers and police officers rounded up other French citizens and put them on trains that eventually lead to Auschwitz and mass extermination. This is something that the French don’t seem to like to talk about.
Sarah is a 10-year-old Jewish girl upon whom history descends on July 16th, 1942. The French police come for her and her family, summoned by the concierge in their apartment building. Apparently quite a few of the concierges engaged in reporting their Jewish tenants to the police and army. Sarah has a younger brother who she hides in a hidden pantry, saying she’ll be back in a few hours. Because it’s just the French police, not the Germans, coming to get them. What could happen? Several weeks pass before she manages to escape the internment camp in the French countryside where she ends up and make her way back to Paris for her brother.
Julia Jarmond is an American reporter in Paris. She emigrated 25 years before and works for a magazine, Seine Scenes, tailored for Americans living in Paris. She is married to a Frenchman, Bertrand, whose family is “old money,” and they have one daughter, Zoe. The author mentions early on that Zoe’s only child status is a sore spot with Bertrand’s family, but that they’ve accepted that there will be no more children. Foreshadowing?? Maybe. Where the stories begin to run into each other is that Julia’s magazine is doing a piece on the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up. She begins to learn about this tragic piece of French history and is appalled that her French in-laws just don’t seem to care about it. There also seems to be something her father-in-law is not telling her…. Dun dun dun.
The sections of the book that focus on Sarah are, I think, the strongest. They are suspenseful and powerful and I really wanted her to get home to her brother and find him alive in that cupboard and live happily ever after with the family who took her in. I cared about Sarah. But somewhere about 2/3 of the way through the book, she disappears. She gets to the old apartment and then her story is over. Then it’s all Julia, all the time. And I just didn’t care about her or her marital woes. I didn’t want to know about her quest to find Sarah in the present day. Tell me about what Sarah actually did after the war! Tell me about her moving to America and getting married! Go inside her head! She’s the interesting one.
Julia, however, just didn’t resonate with me as much. I mean, I felt for her. Her marriage is falling apart after seventeen years for reasons that just don’t make sense to anyone. Her adopted country doesn’t feel like home anymore. She’s got this ghost of a girl inside her head, driving her to find out the rest of her story. But there just wasn’t as much urgency in her story. Her life was not a tragedy. And nice lives don’t always make for the best reading.
The characters in the 2002 sections also didn’t seem as well-drawn at the 1942 people. They were flat. And maybe that was the point. Julia is so focused on the 1942 story that the present has become less real to her than the past. Perhaps it was an artistic technique on the part of the writer. But the problem is that more than half of the book is about a time with characters that the author didn’t seem to care enough about to make them well-rounded. So why should we care about them?
I think this book would have been better if the author had stripped out a lot of the 2002 subplots and focused more on Sarah and 1942. They weren’t fully developed and left a lot of questions. Better to dump that stuff. Of course, people love plural narratives these days. Maybe a story about a little girl in German occupied France would not have sold as well? I do agree, the plural narrative and the “mystery” aspect are two of the things that drew me to this book. By the way, the “mystery” was not that much of a mystery. It was pretty easy to figure out what was going on. And before I figured it out, the ideas for “who is Sarah” that I came up with were much more creative than what actually ended up being the case.
Overall, I did enjoy Sarah’s Key. It was a quick read and entertaining, but it was lacking a bit in character development in the present day portions of the book.