Saturday, October 25, 2008

REVIEW: Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

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.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.


Shana said...

Marie, I'll be back to this review when I've finished the book. It was so tempting too peek but I'd better not til I've read my copy.


bermudaonion said...

Thanks for the recommendation!

Anna said...

Thanks for the review. I've been looking forward to reading this one. I've always been interested in books about the Holocaust. I wonder why the book isn't only about Sarah, why the character of Julia was necessary. Guess I'll just have to read it. ;)

Diary of an Eccentric

Marie said...

Anna, my opinion is that Julia is a point-of-view character for the intended audience- Americans. I think she's supposed to be someone we can relate to and someone through whose eyes we can understand the story. I believe she is unnecessary and that readers would do just fine without her.

sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I'm glad you were able to get a copy of *Sarah's Key*, and am sorry to see that it didn't meet your expectations.

I see your point, that Julia was written for the American audience and perhaps Tatiana de Rosnay could have had more confidence in us appreciating the story of Sarah by itself.

I do think the book is very accessible/approachable to the general reader and that the history of the Vel' d'Hiv event will be known to many more people because of this novel (I'm sure Vel' d'Hiv is not the proper French, but it's late and I'm tired :) )

avisannschild said...

Interesting review, Marie. I'm still interested in this book, although I'm sorry to hear you didn't like the way it was framed (as I have the feeling I will feel the same way as you did).

Tara said...

I felt similarly to you about the Sarah vs. Julia storylines. Julia's voice was just not as compelling to me. Once Sarah's voice was gone the book was missing something. I did enjoy the book overall, though and appreciated learning about this incident (the round up) since I wasn't aware of it.

Lo said...

Well-written and articulated review! We all have our perspectives, and for me, the historical aspect of that particular event was something I knew nothing about, and now I do.

Some of your readers might better understand Tatiana de Rosnay's reasons for writing the way she did.

Here is a link to an interview I had with her.

Lo said... comment wasn't meant to sound negative in any aspect, and I hope it wasn't/isn't received that way by your readers.

We all have our own opinions, and can even agree to disagree on them, at times.

In this particular case, I guess I feel that Tatiana de Rosnay had an easier time in writing from the two perspectives that she did, infusing the two main characters in alternate fashion.

I often read reviews before buying a book, and read several regarding Sarah's Key, before purchasing the hard copy.

I did state in my own review that I thought that the Sarah's story could have been a novel all its own, and I still feel that way.

Thanks for stopping by.

Take care...Lorri

carolinestarr said...

I'm leading a book discussion on Sarah's Key tonight. I think I liked the story (am still not sure), but I found it hard to emotionally believe Julia and her choices. Structure-wise, Julia's breezy passages served as a break from the pain of Sarah's though weren't half as interesting. I agree that Sarah fades once the story is only told from Julia's perspective, which is a shame, as it's the story we really want to hear. Thanks for the insight!

Marie said...

Caroline, thanks for visiting! I hope you come back again! :-)

erin said...

I am glad to have found your review! I'm reading the book right now, but my interest is waning because Sarah's story just stopped and Julia is taking over. :( I had heard so many good things about the book, so I wondered if anyone was as annoyed with Julia as I am! I'll still finish, I suppose though. Thanks.

Care said...

Thank you for this review. You have eloquently addressed the same issues I had with the book and appreciate that I can point to your review when I get around to writing mine.

Marie said...

Care, I'm glad to hear that. :-) I love it when we validate each other, especially in minority opinions! I look forward to reading your review.

Dan & Jeannie said...

Just finished this book last night and I loved it. I enjoyed the way it was written and I loved the way it depicted the French as the introverts that they are. I loved the character of Edouard and how he was developed at the end of the novel.
I tend to enjoy dual-told stories, especially ones about the holocaust and other historical events.
I could not put this book down until it was finished. The author has managed to create two fabulous stories and wrap them up in one breathtaking book.

joan said...

Contrary to many opinions, I think Julia was totally necessary to the story - She was a character who decided to "not close her eyes" to a horrific piece of French History. If you remembered many of the incidental characters in the book, ie. those who saw the plaques commemorating Vel d'hiv, remained indifferent. Julia was the antithesis of indifference who chose to open her eyes and mind to what many chose to ignore. Her character worked well - and her "normal" life in a French town - worrying about her daughter's school, or her husband's infidelity, or her graying hair, sagging skin made Sarah's life even more tragic. It was the nuances of everyday life vs. the sheer terror of families and children of the holocaust. Julia grabbing her daughter when she needed her is in stark contrast to Sarah being ripped out of the arms of her mother.

Marie said...

Joan, what an interesting take on the novel. thank you for commenting!

carolyn said...

Marie, I couldn't agree more. a disappointing read, especially since I began wanting to like the book. The Julia story and the way it alternates, then overtakes the Sarah story indeed made for Hollywood and intended for Americans. As the French say, dommage.

Marie said...

Carolyn, yes :-) I am interested to see the movie though and I'm cautiously optimistic since Kristen Scott Thomas was cast as Julia and I'm hopeful that she can make her a little more interesting, sympathetic and multi-dimensional.

Liz said...

I think characterizing any section of this book as "chick lit" is highly complimentary. I describe it as The Holocaust meets Harlequin Romance!

Sally said...

I found this book very disappointing. I found that it was hard to really care about any of the characters-they just didn't ring true. Trust me, those parents would have at least tried to save their son. With such a story, it could have been so much better. As you said, it has the seed of a good book, but that's about all.