Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay

This is a book I came across while browsing in the wonderland that is Books-A-Million (or maybe it was Sam's Club. They have a few pretty good books too). I knew from the blurb that part of the story takes place in Paris during WWII, and involves a ten-year-old girl who tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in a hidden cupboard, only to be forcibly taken away from her home before having a chance to unlock the cupboard door. This idea was so horrifying to me that I was hoping someone else discovered the locked door and let the boy out before it was too late. And of course I was compelled to read the book so I could find out the truth.

This is one of those books that takes place both in the present and in the past, with alternating chapters, though only for about half of the book. It was odd to be jumping back and forth over 60 years and yet not continue the entire novel in this way. (The second half of the novel occurs entirely in the present.) The central event in the past is the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup of Parisian Jews, thousands of whom were children, on July 16, 1942, also referred to as Vel' d'Hiv'. I'd never heard of this part of history, and had had no idea about the complicity and participation of the French government (French police performed the roundup as ordered by the Germans) in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. I was glad to have read this book if only for the opportunity to learn about something that needs to be remembered.

I was a little disappointed in the writing, which tended to annoy me at times. The chapters in the past, told from the perspective of the 10-year-old girl in 1942, were very repetitive (this is not a real example, but there were a lot of lines like: "Why? Why was this happening? Why was this happening to us?"), and the chapters from the present, following American expatriate journalist Julia through Paris as she researched the Vel' d'Hiv', often seemed to have an awkward syntax. I thought this might be because this is the first book the author has written in English (she was born in France) but it seems English is her first language, so maybe that has nothing to do with it. Another thing that was odd to me was how it seemed the book should have ended with the last chapter from 2002. The final nine chapters continue the story after a three year jump ahead in time, and they read like a really long, really drawn out epilogue.

Some of the plot points (which, it seemed, I wasn't supposed to figure out until the author's big reveal of each) were rather exasperatingly obvious. For instance, the fact that Sirka and Sarah Starzynski were one and the same was no surprise to me. I knew it wasn't over between Bertrand and Amélie as soon as she was introduced. I also knew that Julia had named her baby Sarah when she told William that the giraffe's name was Lucy, even though this wasn't confirmed until six pages later. The one thing I was kept guessing about, however, was the fate of little Michel. It was like a punch in my own gut when the "rotten stench hit [Sarah] like a fist." For a little bit after that I thought I didn't want to continue reading, but I did anyway. And then I couldn't put the book down. Even with irritating writing, I found myself drawn into the story. I stayed up until 1 a.m. and got within 20 pages of the end before I paused to wonder what I was doing to myself, went to sleep, and finished reading today.

Another thing that caught me by surprise was that Julia didn't end up with Guillaume. When she didn't, though, I realized I was glad she didn't get stuck with another Frenchman after Bertrand. Kind of like the way I didn't want my sister to find herself with another German, although I'm OK with it now, since I think she has picked a good one this time. By the way, I found it somewhat ironic that Julia ended up with William. Isn't that the English version of the French name Guillaume? Actually, now that I think about it, I guess we don't really know if she ended up with William, but it certainly seemed to me that she would.

A note on the book's cover: I'm pretty sure the photo shows the palace from the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. I am also pretty sure you can't see the Eiffel Tower from that vantage point. But that's OK. It's a pretty picture, anyway.


Amanda said...

So my cousin recommended this book to me and I went picked it up. Then I had a vague memory of you writing about it. I should have read your review before and maybe I would not have been so excited.

You are right the writing was weak and the "reveals" were painfully obvious. But I did like to hear the history and it was a good story. I too was most compelled to hear what happened with little Michelle, even if he did seem a bit of a brat from what little we hear of him in the beginning.

And the moment the baby was born and she only used adjectives, I knew her name was Sarah. Although I think there was slip where they called her Charlotte at one point, but since it was an audio book I never went back to check.

I had hoped she would end up with William, but they don't really say it do they.

Kathy said...

Funny, I don't remember the Charlotte slip. I don't think I have the book anymore, though, so I can't check.

I guess by now I shouldn't be surprised that our reactions to this book were so similar! ;)

Amanda said...

I did go back and I think she was referring to her sister Charla, it wasn't clear but that makes more sense.

I am reading the Thirteenth Tale now, about half way. :)

Kathy said...

Ooooh, that's a good one. I hope you're enjoying it! Don't forget to let me know what you thought of it when you're finished.

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