Sunday, March 21, 2010

54. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I subscribe to NPR and New York Times book reviews through Google Reader, and that's how I learned about Sarah's Key. I know that I've mentioned this before, but I am endlessly fascinated by this period in history. It seems like each time I read about this era, I learn something new. I had never heard of the Vel d'Hiv' Roundup -- have you?

Here's the brief summary included in most reviews of the book online:

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 the 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.

Let me start by saying that this review is going to be fairly glowing. I fell in love with this book (although it does have some flaws, which I'll get into). De Rosnay starts out by alternating the points of view of Sarah and Julia in each chapter, and at first I found that Sarah's chapters were much more compelling. But by the time that Sarah's chapters end and Julia narrates to the book's conclusion, we're in the same boat as Julia -- desperate to know more. I would definitely describe this book as a page-turner; I read it one night while Colin was at work, I couldn't put it down. And not only does this book grab you while you're reading, but it stays with you, under your skin, for a few days. 

De Rosnay doesn't shy away from describing what Sarah goes through when her family is arrested and detained, then sent to a concentration camp. Horrible events are relayed in detail, but not gratuitously so. I felt that the overall message of the book is that we should, no we need to remember what happened. So it made sense to me that de Rosnay would want her readers to truly understand the unbelievable anguish that people were subjected to. I thought it was very smart to show the horrors of this time through the eyes of a child; it seemed like everything took on more significance, and it was a good way to demonstrate what de Rosnay wanted to. For many chapters, Sarah was referred to only as "the girl" which I didn't fully understand -- it's no secret that the girl in those chapters and the girl that Julia is trying to track down are one and the same, so why bother not identifying Sarah from the start? The only explanation that I could come up with was that de Rosnay wanted to make Sarah's experiences universal, as it could have been anyone going through the same things. That's valid, but it irritated me a little bit because it wasn't readily apparent. It almost seemed like de Rosnay was trying to stave off a reveal in a mystery, which wasn't necessary. Also, I thought some of the writing from Sarah's point of view was a little heavy-handed, although I could understand that de Rosnay was trying to clearly express her message. Those are fairly minor complaints, though, considering how much I enjoyed reading this book.

I didn't really like Julia at the beginning and there were times when I didn't understand her motivations. But I grew to like her as the book went on, and I can completely relate to her fascination with the roundup. When I become interested in a subject, I react the same way; reading up on it as much as I can, almost to the point of obsession. (Needless to say, I've never had this kind of experience, though.) I was put off by Julia's relationship with her husband -- he was so insufferable -- but de Rosnay slowly and subtly showed that they were both at fault for the problems in the marriage, and I really appreciated that. It would have been much easier to make Bertrand the villain. The progression of Julia's relationship with Bertrand's family was one of the many elements of the book that really worked. It felt very natural and real to me.

I don't want to give away too much, because I want you to read this book if it sounds interesting to you, but I will say that the ending is very satisfying, and everyone ended up where they were supposed to. The question that de Rosnay wants us to ask, and that various characters in the book do ask, is whether or not Julia was right to try to track down Sarah and apologize for benefiting from her misfortune. I think many readers will come to the conclusion that you just know de Rosnay wants us to: Yes, Julia was right to pursue this because in the end it is better to know and remember the past.

Oh, and by the way -- apparently there's a movie adaptation in the works, with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Julia. I don't know if it's going to be released in the U.S. though. Details on the internets are sketchy. Boo.

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