Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sarah's Key - Tatiana De Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah's Key was a book lent to me by a coworker who thought I would like it.  Well, I'm not sure that I liked it overall--but when we discussed, we liked the same parts of it, and it's those parts that really resonate, so I think that was more the point overall.  The story is in two timelines.  One takes place in France in 1942, when the French police round up thousands of men, women, and children and lock them in the Velodrome d'Hiver before sending them on to camps near Paris, and then on to Auschwitz to be gassed.  The orders for this were issued by the Nazi German occupiers, but the operation itself was entirely carried out by the French.  The main character on this timeline is Sarah (who is referred to, for the longest time, as "the girl," which is annoying, because we know her name is ultimately Sarah, it's right in the title) who is caught in the round-ups with her family.  Before they're dragged from their home, Sarah locks her little brother in a hidden cupboard in an attempt to keep him safe, thinking that she'll be coming back within a few hours.  This goes about as well as you can expect.

The second timeline takes place in 2002.  Julia Jarmond is an American living in Paris, with a French husband, who works for an American magazine aimed at expats in Paris.  She's assigned  a story about the Vel d'Hive round-ups as part of the memorial taking place for the 60th anniversary.  While investigating the story, she finds out that the apartment that her husband's family owns, and which they are currently renovating, belonged to a family caught in the round-up in the 40's.  The husband's family moved into it in a hurry soon after it was vacated.  Julia becomes absolutely obsessed with finding out about the family who lived in the apartment, tracking them down, and letting them know that they haven't been forgotten.

Sarah's part of the story, no matter which timeline it's being told in, is ultimately the more powerful.  I had no idea that the Vel d'Hive round-ups happened.  It seems most people don't.  While I knew that the Vichy government in France was complicit with the Nazis, I was clueless that they had collaborated to such a high degree.  This is the important part of the book.  Knowing that these things happened and not forgetting them, even though many seem eager to do so, or at least to gloss over French participation in these terrible events.  In this respect, I can totally sympathize with Julia's actions, because not forgetting is paramount.

...but at the same time, Julia was an incredibly selfish character, and I didn't much like her.  (I don't actually really care about her pregnancy.  This seems to have been handled relatively well, in my opinion, having her go through her options without being preachy.  She didn't make the decision that best benefited her husband, but that relationship was on the rocks, anyway, so I think it was probably best for everyone involved that it went the way it did.)  She allows her obsession with Sarah to take over her life and proceeds to drop a bomb on someone else regarding it, someone who didn't ask for it, and then she continues to basically cyber-stalk the guy when he asks her to stay away.  And naming the baby Sarah?  I think that's incredibly creepy and very poor taste.  Ultimately, Julia does well to remember, but she goes beyond remembering and into appropriating Sarah's story as her own, which is not appropriate, at all.  And when William expresses a feeling that Julia failed him, she is upset, which struck me as highly hypocritical.  She made it out like she was doing him a favor, but ultimately all of her actions were for her own peace of mind, not for anyone else, and consequently I don't think she really had the right to get to offended when William opened up to her--which was what she wanted all along.

The writing here is a bit lopsided, too.  The chapters in the first half are very short, and alternate between Julia and Sarah, which meant that as soon as I got into one part of the story, I was jerked back out of it in favor of the other part.  I would have liked if the chapters had been just a bit longer to help smooth that jerky feeling.  And the writing itself is a bit uneven; there are some wonderful, evoking images, but there also short, choppy patches, and the two don't always seem to fit together.

Overall, I think Sarah's story was the powerful, important part of the book here, and Julia was a terrible character.  Skimming some other reviews, I don't seem to be alone in these sentiments.  Sarah's narrative chapters vanish halfway through the book, but her story doesn't, which is good because that's the compelling part.  Remembering the history is vital...but Julia went about it in a terrible way, and I absolutely could not like her for it.

3 stars out of 5.

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