By Ekta R. Garg
November 14, 2012
Rated: Borrow it
An American writer living in Paris discovers that her husband’s latest architecture project—to remodel his paternal grandmother’s apartment—has ties to an event from World War II. When she begins investigating the event, the connection comes closer to home than anyone could have imagined. Although the war happened sixty years earlier, the writer comes face to face with its possible consequences for her own life. Author Tatiana De Rosnay offers readers this premise in Sarah’s Key, the novel from 2006 that stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than two years.
Writer Julia Jarmond has lived in Paris for 25 years, having married the native Frenchman of her dreams. Or so she used to think. Lately some of Bertrand’s quirks have really started to bother Julia. But she’s not sure what to do about them, even though her friends and family have pointed out these things for years. Instead Julia decides to throw herself into her latest assignment: as a writer for a magazine with a target audience made up of people just like her—Americans who have relocated to Paris—Julia’s editor has given her the job to cover the 60th anniversary of the WWII roundup at the Velodrome d’Hiver, or Vel’ d’Hiv.
On the night of July 16, 1942, French policeman went door to door searching for Jews. The policeman herded thousands to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a stadium-type venue used for a variety of sports events. When the Germans began prowling the streets during Hitler’s rise to power, they ordered the French to search for Jews and the French Jews watched in horror as their own countrymen herded them like cattle on that summer night into the Vel’ d’Hiv and left them for days without any food, water, or any other provisions. Women and children comprised a full two-thirds of those rounded up, and after their days of internment at Vel’ d’Hiv almost all of those who survived the horrible conditions boarded trains to a variety of concentration camps.
Author De Rosnay builds her novel around this lesser-known event of WWII. Julia becomes fascinated by the roundup and figures out quickly Bertrand’s grandmother’s old apartment—the apartment Bertrand has undertaken to redo into a new home for himself, Julia, and their 11-year-old daughter, Zoe—this apartment belonged to a Jewish family during the war. Julia wonders whether those Jews suffered the fate of the Vel’ d’Hiv. As Julia begins doing research for her article, she gets her answer and then realizes the answer connects Bertrand’s grandmother and father to the shameful event.
De Rosnay intertwines Julia’s story with the story of Sarah, a young French Jewish girl. Sarah wakes up to the sound of pounding on the door and feels first confusion and then alarm when she realizes the police have arrived on her family’s doorstep. When her brother, Michel, tries to come into the view of the police, Sarah rushes him back to their favorite hiding place: a closet that locks from the outside with a key. Sarah takes Michel to the closet, assures him that she’ll come back for him as soon as possible, and then locks him in for safety. Sarah, her father, and her mother follow the police to Vel’ d’Hiv.
De Rosnay’s portions on Sarah are pitch perfect: her efforts in her research make these sections shine, and I dare anyone reading this book to stifle their tears during Sarah’s story. De Rosnay clearly spent a great deal of time building her story, and as a writer myself I wouldn’t change a single word of Sarah’s portion.
Julia’s story, by comparison, remains compelling as long as Julia delves into Sarah’s story. The sections that deal exclusively with Julia’s life don’t stand up as well, and the reason De Rosnay introduces for conflict between Julia and Bertrand sounds contrived at best. As the book progresses and eventually focuses more on Julia, it loses impact and steam. The last chapter or two feel a little drawn out; De Rosnay could have ended the book a little earlier, kept the tension taut, and finished the book with as compelling a storyline as she started it.
However, the strength of Sarah’s story alone will keep readers involved until an end that concludes the book, if in a slightly melodramatic way. De Rosnay’s talent in those parts of the book will certainly draw readers to her other works, and I would highly recommend Sarah’s Key to anyone who loves stories from the Holocaust for Sarah’s story.
What the ratings mean:
Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection. It’s definitely worth it!
Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.
Bypass it–Free time is precious. Don’t spend it on this book!