19 November 2009

Book Deux

#2 - Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I chose Sarah's Key because it received rave reviews on all the bookseller websites as well as from one of my good friends. Also, the book is centered on the Vel d'Hiv raid, an event that I've never heard of despite being a German Studies major who focused on the Holocaust a great deal.

For a brief history lesson from information I've gathered from Wiki and the book itself, the Vel d'Hiv raid was responsible for removing thousands of Jewish families from their homes in Paris. On the night of July 16, 1942, French police under the Vichy government knocked on Jewish families' homes and demanded they come with them with only a suitcase in hand. The families were brought to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor cycling stadium, and remained there for days. No food, no water, and barely any toilets available for more than 10,000 people. The Jews were then transported to camps. Men, women, and children were separated from each other. The children were left alone in the camps as the men and women were sent to Auschwitz and immediately gassed. Of the thousands that were rounded up and sent away, only a scant amount returned.

de Rosnay uses the Vel d'Hiv in order to interweave two stories that are sixty years apart from one another.

The first story begins on the night of the Vel d'Hiv. A 10 year old French Jew named Sarah is rounded up along with her parents. In order to protect her 4 year old brother, Michel, she hides him in their secret cupboard, promising that she'll be back soon. Only she has the key to unlock the cupboard, hence the title of the book.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American expatriate living in Paris, has been assigned to write an article on the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv . While she struggles to balance her family life, she becomes engrossed with the history of the Vel d'Hiv and the thousands of children and their families that were never able to return home.

Suffice it to say that Julia and Sarah's path cross in one way or another.

The book, as a concept, is successful. The chapters alternate between her story and Julia's until the middle of the book where their stories converge and Julia's perspective takes charge. I found Sarah's story gripping, come hell or high water she was determined to return to Paris and retrieve her young brother from the closet. She sees her parents lose strength and hope. Her mother becomes a mere shell of her former self, but Sarah hangs on because she knows Michel is waiting for her.

The book's weakness, however, is Julia's story. Sarah's story is told in the third person, while Julia's is in the first person. She's grating and irritating. I found her side of the story to be trivial, bordering on Chick-Lit at times. I just didn't give a shit about her marriage or how despite her living in Paris for more than half her life, she was still seen as an American. Her French husband and his family embody the arrogant French stereotype. Come on, Julia. If your husband was always this bad, why did you bother falling in love with the bastard? Even when de Rosnay tries to make Bertrand (Julia's husband) a sympathetic character, I wanted to kick him in the face. Furthermore, the end of the story pissed me the hell off. It's too much of a spoiler to even describe the situation, but all I can say is, seriously Julia?

If you read my review of The Shadow of the Wind, you might remember my heart fluttering over how Zafón managed to make you ache with the characters. de Rosnay doesn't do this, not with Julia. I read the words and could only reply with "meh," when it came to Julia's family struggles. Sarah, on the other hand, was much easier to relate to. We all have family and in my case, I have a younger brother whom I still try to protect even though he's 17. It wasn't hard to connect with Sarah in that way.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the book. I loved Sarah's story, but couldn't stand Julia's character for the life of me. I could have done without Julia and her emotional struggles that were only connected to Sarah's story because she made them be.

Sarah gets a high five for being the most determined and strong 10 year old ever, but I'd like to trip Julia and make her fall into the Seine.


  1. jen,
    love the last part.
    trip julia and make her fall into the seine...
    but i agree with you.

    i wish there was more to sarah's side. julia's side of the story dragged on a bit too much.

    -jack jack

  2. I read this last year for the first Cannonball Read, and I enjoyed it. I definitely think you are right, though - Julia wasn't nearly as interesting, and the parts with her that were the best were when she was researching Sarah. I also could have done without the romantic angle. Still, I didn't have a strong dislike to her.
    I've read a lot of novels involving WWII and the Holocaust, and sometimes I seriously wonder if people just pick that subject because it doesn't take much to make people sympathize when that's the topic. It's like just mentioning the Holocaust is a short cut to making people get emotionally involved. I read Those Who Save Us (or something like that) around the same time and it had a similar issue where the past was much more interesting than the characters in the present.