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Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

Sarah’s Key
Tatiana De Rosnay
St. Martin’s, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-312-37084-8
Source: bought it, passed it on

I finally read this book because so many customers at work told me their book group read it and had a great discussion about it. Sarah’s Key is one of those books where you learn some tremendously important history. It is the story of a young Jewish girl and an American journalist living in Paris.

I was engrossed in the first half of the book but started losing interest in the second half. In the first half Sarah and Julia’s stories are told in alternating chapters. Sarah’s story takes place mainly in 1942. She is a young Jewish girl, born in France to Polish parents who apparently fled their homeland for the safety of France. Julia’s story is contemporary. She’s an American journalist who has lived in Paris for 25 years and is married to a French man, yet she’s always felt like an outsider in his family.

The first chapter starts with Sarah’s story. Sarah and her parents are taken by French police on the night of The Vélodrome d’hiver Round-up, July 16 and 17, 1942. Sarah hides her younger brother in a secret cabinet, thinking that she’ll be able to come home soon to let him out. She does everything she can to get back to him.

Known as the Vél’ d’Hiv’ it was the largest single round-up of Jews on French soil. Some 13,000 people were taken and held for several days without food or water in what was once an indoor bike track before transportation to concentration camps. The children included in this roundup were taken to Auschwitz where they were immediately sent to the gas chambers, as Julia says, “By the French government, on French buses, on French trains” (116). The Nazis did not ask that children be included in the round-up, but for reasons not discussed in the novel the French police had included them.

Julia is assigned to write a story about the Vél’ d’Hiv’ and eventually discovers that her husband’s grandmother’s apartment which they’re rehabbing before they move in to, was the home of Sarah and her family.

Sarah’s story makes for riveting reading. Julia’s story was initially interesting, but shortly after the half-way point Sarah’s Key becomes fully Julia’s narrative and I started losing interest in the book. My momentum slowed down and I realized it was because I didn’t really like Julia.

While liking a character isn’t a prerequisite for me, character development is or at least some valid reason for a lack of character development. Julia is passive in all her relationships and she seems to be coasting through life. I thought perhaps she’d grow and change through her experience, that Sarah’s story would wake her up, but it doesn’t. She’s a doormat to her handsome, charming, and sophisticated Parisian husband who is going through a mid-life crisis and has had a lover on the side for years. Although Julia decides against having the abortion that her husband wants her to have, she doesn’t tell him herself, but leaves it to the doctor to tell him. Julia never tells her husband the truth about how she feels about his sarcasm or the baby, nor does she share with him what she’s doing with her life (or with their older daughter’s life, for that matter). Julia calls him a coward, but I think she’s the coward. She’s passive-aggressive and lost and the plot starts to feel very contrived as she chases down Sarah’s son.

The final scene in the cafe between Sarah’s son William and Julia actually made my skin crawl. Below is the interaction between William and Julia. Let me set it up a bit: Julia had tracked Sarah’s life from Paris to the camp to America. Julia found out Sarah bore a son in American who is now living in Italy. William is his name and he had no idea about his mother’s history. Julia tells him the whole story and he’s stunned; eventually he retraces his mother’s journey and meets people who knew her as a young girl. Can you imagine finding out that your mother lived a completely different life than the one she told you about? That she was Jewish and lived through the Holocaust and had an adoptive family that you never knew about?

In this scene William and Julia are in a cafe in New York City. William speaks first:

“But it was difficult, hard to go through. And I wished you’d been there with me. I should never have done all that alone, I should have said yes when you asked to come along.”

“Maybe I should have insisted,” I said.

“I should have listened to you. It was too much to bear alone. And then, when I finally went back to the rue de Saintonge, and when those unknown people opened your door, I felt you’d let me down.”

He lowered his eyes. I set my coffee cup back in its saucer, resentment sweeping through me. How could he, I thought, after all I’d done for him, after all the time, the effort, the pain, the emptiness?

He must have deciphered something in my face because he quickly put his hand on my sleeve.
“I’m sorry I said that,” he murmured.

“I never let you down, William.”

My voice sounded stiff.

“I know that, Julia. I’m sorry.”

His was deep, vibrant.

I relaxed. Managed a smile. We sipped in silence.

This interaction reads to me like Julia is turning into one of those narcissistic, stern, straight-backed, grand French women that she described her ex-husband’s grandmother of being. Distant, remote, shut off. After all the compassion she seemed to have for Sarah’s story, all the anguish she went through regarding her own marriage, and her husband’s family’s apartment, she doesn’t catch the irony of William showing up at her apartment in need and finding a stranger at the door just like his mother found a stranger at her door 60 years ago?  For William, Julia was a strong connection, indeed his first connection to his mother’s true story. Apparently Julia did not get the irony or make the connection. Instead Julia thinks about herself, all she’s done for him, and then scolds him so he murmurs an apology like a child. This is not a great start to a new romance. She’s just trained him how to respond to her irrational, narcissistic feelings. He apologizes and she manages a smile that I imagine as a bit condescending. Its as if she goes from being the abused to being the abuser. I realize that happens in real life, but in this book Julia’s behavior was tiring.

However…

Movie poster (2010)

The strength of this book lies in Sarah’s story and the initial part of Julia’s story. What most readers seem to appreciate about this book is the history that it teaches about the French government’s collaboration with the Nazis and the decades of silence surrounding the transportation of 76,000 Jewish people from France during WWII.  As one of the characters says, a man who had dedicated his life to identifying those murdered by the Nazis, “The truth is harder than ignorance” (124). He tells Julia not to judge her French husband’s family too harshly because although there was “a considerable amount of Parisian indifference” to the plight of Jewish neighbors, people also “feared for their lives” under Nazi occupation (126). Throughout the narrative it is made clear that many, if not most, contemporary French citizens are ignorant about what happened or are still indifferent to what happened. During her research, Julia sees historical commemorative plaques throughout the county that blame only “Hitlerism” or the Nazis for what happened, with no mention that it was the French government and police who did the Nazis’ dirty work (pages 143, 145).

It was a complicated time and simply pointing fingers isn’t helpful. Sarah’s Key doesn’t set out to condemn the French, but to explore what happened through the character of Sarah and also showing how the past still impacts the present through Julia’s story. Although I was annoyed by the character of Julia, I do recommend this novel to those who are interested in Holocaust studies and French history.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Julia’s character is portrayed in the movie. If anyone has read the book and seen the movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 replies »

  1. I have seen lots of praise of this book but most of the praise seems to be along the lines of “wow I didn't know that” rather than about the actual writing of the book.

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  2. Sam–yes, it was hard to rate the book with the star system on Goodreads. One one hand I wanted to give it a 5 for the subject matter, but then considering how I felt about other aspects of the novel I didn't think it merited a 5. This is probably one reason why I don't use a rating system on my blog. Thanks for commenting!

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