March 16, 2011

Sarah's Key - A Book Review

I'm off to my book club gathering this evening. I'm quite looking forward to it, as who knows when I'll get time to read a book after the baby comes. Fortunately, reading the book every time isn't a pre-requisite for our group (as long as you keep in mind that spoilers will be part of the discussion should you plan to read/finish it). Given I did read this month's selection, Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the book.

The books opens in Paris, July 1942 where a young Jewish girl, Sarah, and her family are arrested by the French Police as part of what was called the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup during the Holocaust. Jewish families throughout the area were corralled into a large stadium and retained with limited food, water and medical supplies before being transferred to holding camps and eventually Auschwitz. Unaware of the gravity of what was about to unfold, Sarah locked her brother in a secret cupboard just before the arrest thinking he'd be safe and that she would be back to get him. Fast forward to Paris 2002, and the story continues as an American journalist, Julia, living in Paris and married to a Parisian, is covering the 60th anniversary of the event. Through her research, she discovers a family secret that connects to Sarah. The story unfolds alternating between both Sarah and Julia's perspectives.

I have always enjoyed historical fiction of such events. There's something about reading a story that you know captures a time in history through fictional characters while still providing an accurate depiction of what would have happened. I also enjoy autobiographies for similar reasons, though often much harder to read as I can't step back from the reality that was this person's life. The fictional approach allows me a different lens.

I was immediately gripped by Sarah's story and pulled into her tragic tale, wanting to read more, know more and follow her through her journey. Without spoiling it, I wanted to know how she would survive the unfathomable circumstances that were now her life. I wanted to find out what became of her brother, her parents, her friends and herself. Knowing that children did live this life and there were good people amongst the hatred, I was captivated by Sarah.

And then there was Julia. For much of the book, the chapters switched back and forth between Sarah's narrative and Julia's. Julia's story, set in present time, was used to share the tragedy of the Holocaust and the French role in it from a more modern view. Unfortunately, for me Julia's narrative was something I had to live with to get to back Sarah's. Aside from offering an interesting view on the French's cultural desire to mask that which is not pretty, Julia's story felt contrived and cliche. An American living in Paris, a tumultuous marriage, a crisis, etc. Stacked page for page against Sarah's tumultuous crisis, Julia's narrative paled in comparison. I could predict what was going to happen to Julia without turning the page. Unfortunately, the book eventually got to the point where Julia became the primary voice and was the only way to find out what became of Sarah. As I was interested enough in that, I stuck it out.

Despite Julia and her half of the book, I'm glad I read it. I was unaware of the role the French played in the Holocaust and believe De Rosnay did a good job putting that forward. The read was also easy and Sarah's story page-turning. I just wish De Rosnay hadn't taken the modern day perspective. I would have preferred to find out where Sarah's future went from her view than Julia's. The reality is simply that Sarah's character and story would have been much more captivating on its own.

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