Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

SarahsKeyFrom Goodreads: Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel’ d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

☺ ☺ ☺ ½

I enjoyed reading this book, though I was much more interested in Sarah than in Julia. The book jumps back and forth between the two characters’ story, and the way they slowly come together is well done. What struck me most was that for the first third of the book, Sarah is only identified as “the girl.” Just as Julia is trying to find out about the Vel’ d’Hiv’, so is the reader trying to find out who “the girl” is. It adds suspense to the book, and at the same time, it drives home the fact that there were 4,000 children included in the round-up. “The girl” was one of many, and this could have turned into the story of any one of them.

Once Julia’s research becomes more concrete, we find out that the girl is Sarah Starzynksi, and her story becomes personal for both Julia and the reader. Sarah’s story is heartbreaking, because in addition to her confusion about what is going on, she has to deal with her mounting fear for her brother. The horror of her situation is palpable throughout the chapters that tell her story.

While I didn’t really like Julia and couldn’t muster much interest in her relationship with her French husband and his family, I could sympathize with Julia in her frustration about the general ignorance and deliberate denial of this event. I can relate to her surprise that historical places with great significance don’t carry more than a little sign that are easily overlooked. (Paris is not the only European city where you can find this.) So I found this part of her story poignant and interesting, although I was a bit disappointed that this book did not spend more time exploring the involvement of the French Police in the round-up. But that might have been hard to build into the story as it was set up.

My reaction to this book actually reminded me of how I felt about The Baker’s Daughter. The part of the story that took place during WWII was strong, but the contemporary part fell a bit flat. Even though I am currently reading for The Classics Club, I am planning to stay in Europe during the 1930s and 40s and read some more books set in this time period to continue my book strings.

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