Friday, January 30, 2015

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

The Debbie Downers, my "only sad books" book club, selected a real downer for our latest read, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007).

The book goes back and forth between the present and the past. First we have the story of Sarah, the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants living in Paris in 1942. The family is taken as part of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup (something I'd never really heard of before), where French police took entire families, locked them in the Vel' d'Hiv for days without food or water, then shipped them to work camps, separated the fathers from their families and then the mothers from their children, and ultimately sent everyone to Auschwitz. It is a particularly grim part of French history since the atrocities were committed not by the Nazi's, but by Frenchmen. When the police knock on Sarah's door, she hides her 4-year-old brother Michel in a secret crawlspace that they often used to play in and the police do not find him. She takes the key with her, assuming that they will be back in a few hours when the police finish with them.

Interspersed with Sarah's story, we have the story of modern-day journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia is an American who married a Parisian and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years with her husband and daughter. She has a passionate but rocky marriage that is pushed to the breaking point when she finds out she is pregnant again (at 45, after multiple miscarriages) and decides to keep the baby even though her husband does not want them to have it. Julia gets sucked into Sarah's story when she discovered that the apartment that her husband has recently inherited from his grandmother had belonged to Sarah's family when they were taken by the police in 1942. She doggedly tracks down information about the roundup and Sarah's family and brings Sarah's story into the present day.

The plot with Julia and her husband was pretty ham-fisted and the husband really couldn't be more of a one-dimensional jerk. Still, as the book moves forward, Julia becomes a more and more sympathetic character, and I found myself getting caught up in her story as much as I was in Sarah's. I've been trying really hard to figure out if this book was originally published in French or English (I'm finding contradictory information on that). de Rosnay is French, but her mother is English and she spent some of her youth in the U.S. She lives in Paris and writes in both French and English. I'm going to use the fact that English is not her primary language to excuse some of the sappy dialogue and occasionally flat phrase. Luckily the horrific plot of Sarah and her family is enough to keep the reader going through some rough spots.

Overall this is a worthwhile book, perhaps more for the historical part of its story than for its writing style or the modern half of the plot. Learning about the Vel' d'Hiv and confronting a less familiar part of the horror of the Holocaust was something that I'm glad I did. And man, it certainly fit the bill for a sad sad sad sad book.

[This was made into a movie by a French director in 2011 starring Kristin Scott-Thomas. If the trailer is anything to go by, it looks like they make the shitty husband / impending baby part of the plot pretty minor.]

No comments: