Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay. Published 2008 by St. Martin's Press. Fiction.
Sarah's Key contains the seeds of a great novel- an overlooked, under-written-about aspect of an important time in history, some compelling characters and a setting rife with both beauty and destruction. It's historical fiction set mainly in present-day Paris, about an American woman who discovers her husband's family's connection to the Holocaust, and specifically to one little girl whose family was deported and killed during the barbaric (but little known) roundup of French Jews in 1942 to the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium and then to Auschwitz.
The first half of the book alternates between the perspective of little Sarah Starzinsky, the Jewish girl who goes to the Vel d'Hiv (the shorthand form by which the stadium was known) with her parents, and the American. As the French police come to arrest the family, Sarah stows her little brother Michel in a locked cupboard. Believing the family will come home shortly, the children agree that Sarah will keep the key with her and release him on their return. Much of the suspense of this first half concerns Michel's fate; I plowed right through to find out what happens, and Sarah's chapters are tight, brisk, and literary- just my thing.
Unfortunately to get to Sarah's chapters the reader will have to contend with Ms. Julia Jarmond, the aforementioned American. Her chapters (and character) are as light and weightless as Sarah's are dense and moving. Her side of the book is written in a style more resembling chick lit and Julia comes across as narcissistic and dull. Her boss is a boor, her marriage is brittle and unstable, she doesn't get along with her French sisters-in-law and despite her insistence that she loves France and feels at home there, she never really seems happy. A magazine writer, she is assigned to write a piece on an anniversary of the roundup and soon discovers that her husband's family is intimately connected to Sarah's.
From here, Julia's voice takes over and Sarah is lost. The story takes a few twists and turns before lurching to a conclusion I found deeply unsatisfying, if only because it seems so movie-perfect and pat. Don't get me wrong- I really wanted to like Sarah's Key and Sarah's chapters are wonderful. But I think de Rosnay took a great idea and chose the wrong way to frame it and the wrong person to tell it. Julia's husband's connection to Sarah has nothing to do with Julia and her appropriation of Sarah's story struck me as wrong somehow. I think Sarah's story would have more resonance if told by someone with a real stake in it, like her own family or the family who hid her. I think Sarah's Key is valuable in that it covers a subject that doesn't get written about much- the Holocaust in France- but if you want a really wonderful, recent treatment of that particular subject, I would suggest Philippe Grimbert's lovely Memory, another, much more powerful, book about family secrets. But Sarah's Key is a worthwhile, if imperfect, entry nonetheless, and will doubtless appeal to many readers for its quick pace, its light tone and its unusual subject matter.
I reviewed the 2011 film Sarah's Key (Elle s'appellait Sarah) here on my movie blog.
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.