Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I chose to read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay for the Jewish Literature Reading Challenge. I initially picked the book out at a bookstore because I really liked the cover (The Luxembourg Gardens was one of my favorite places in Paris so of COURSE the cover grabbed my attention!).

The summary sounded intriguing and moving so I added it to my TBR list.

Lots of Jewish Literature focuses on Holocaust remembrance and Sarah’s Key is no different. The book initially takes place in occupied France during 1942 where we meet 10 year old Sarah Starzynski, a little Jewish girl who’s family is seized during the Vel’d’Hiv’ Round up–which took place in Paris and involved the French police (working for the Germans) who arrested and carted off to Auschwitz concentration camp.

When the police come, Sarah hides her brother in a secret cabinet in their apartment to keep him safe from the police and promises to return to him shortly and free him. She leaves him with some water, snacks, and a book as she assumes she will be returning in the morning. It goes without saying that the Vel’d’Hiv’ Round up is considered one of the darkest hours in France’s history.

The book alternates between Sarah’s story and that of modern day American writer Julia who is living in Paris. Julia is writing a story for a Paris magazine about the Vel’s’Hiv anniversary and since she doesn’t know much about it, she starts researching the event and discovers many things about the round up including the story of little Sarah which has a direct influence on her life and family.

Here is the official summery from Shelfari:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours. Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life. Tatiana de Rosnayoffers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

I think one of the things that makes Sarah’s Key different than other Holocaust remembrance stories is not much is known about the Vel’d’Hiv’ Round up. I personally have not heard much about the Round Up–I think most people would know about Auschwitz or other references to concentration camps or the Holocaustbut I don’t know that much is know outside of France about the Round Up so I thought this was an interesting insight into the events of WWII. I also liked that Sarah escaped from the Round Up before being taken away to Auschwitz, though she escaped the tragedy of going to a concentration camp it didn’t mean she was ‘saved’ from the horrors of the Holocaust all together–as we find out throughout the story.

I liked how the story approached the Holocaust from a different way but at one point during the story Julia (the other main character) is talking to her editor who said it would have been interested to get perspective from the soldiers who actually DID the arresting/rounding up of the Jews. After this section in the book I felt the same way and was sad the story DIDN’T give any perspective really from the soldiers etc. But at the same time, this is not a history book and the point of the story is NOT the soldiers stories but little Sarah’s…..and Michael’s.

From a literary perspective I liked how de Rosnay did not tell us who the little girl was until half way through the story–she used ‘the girl’ instead which had a very powerful meaning. By using ‘the girl’ instead of using her name was like saying ‘the girl’ could be anyone….any girl from the Holocaust. Was her name really important? Did we really need to put a name to her? I suppose eventually yes once Sarah’s story ended after discovering her brother….but until then I liked the not knowing. I liked that she could be anyone…..there were so many who died during the Holocaust and so many without names, so many without their stories told that I like the anonymity of ‘the girl’.

Sarah’s story ended when she found her brother Michael, dead. I loved how her story just stopped there….this is obviously a pivotal point in her life and with the death of Michael came the ‘death’ of Sarah…her childhood, her innocents….’the girl’. It was like she died with him and throughout the story we see she really did in some ways….she moved to America, married…went by another name never revealing who she was or what he life had been like to anyone not even her own husband or son.

Mechanically, the story is a fast read–the chapters are short and alternate between Sarah’s narration and Julia’s narration so each chapter or break the narration style changes until about mid way when Sarah finds Michael. This made the story feel like it was progressing and I just wanted to keep reading after each pause/break in the narration….and de Rosnay has a talent for leaving her readers with a cliff hanger and then switching to a new person narrating, it drove me mad I just wanted to keep reading.

The only thing I didn’t care for in the book was the ending. I thought when Julia and Sarah’s son kind of ‘reconsiled’ in the end it was a little forced and the ending rushed. There was such a build up to her tracking down Sarah and Sarah’s family and then meeting him that I just felt like it ended too soon and too quickly. In some ways I was not sure I liked how Julia’s life meshed in the story…I liked the perspective of her being a journalist who’s life was a hot mess but I didn’t know if her being American was relevant to the story, same with her marriage, pregnancy, and the relationship with her father in-law and the grandmother. In some ways I think it would have been better if the story didn’t contain these things about Julia’s life.

I don’t think by removing details about Julia’s life and family would have made it any less relevant or moving book. It is interesting perspective but at times I was so wrapped up in Julia’s life that I forgot about what was going on with Sarah. I personally like Sarah’s ‘voice’ better than Julia’s….Sarah was so innocent and the change in her personality that started when she was taken from her apartment till the end was so strong and fitting that I found myself admiring her strength and felt the change matched her personality. I didn’t care for Julia as much because at times I felt like she was not as strong and determined as Sarah….she seemed a little ‘poor me’ I’m the outsider American with a husband who doesn’t appreciate me, a job that I don’t like, a daughter who is growing up, pregnant a day-late and a dollar short,  and a sister who is a successful lawyer who gets respect….why isn’t my life different? It was harder for me to identify with Julia than Sarah for these reasons.

If I was using only the way the story was told, the unique historical elements, and Sarah’s story I would have given it at four or five., but since I struggled with Julia’s character and the ending I simply couldn’t give it more than a 3.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

  • Kindle Edition, 293 pages
  • Published (first published 2006)

This book counts toward: 2011 Jewish Literature Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 3 out of 5 (Worth reading)

Genre: Holocaust remembrance, literature, historical fiction, contempo lit.

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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