Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

"I didn't know!" she sobbed.  "Papa, I didn't know, I thought we were coming back, I thought he'd be safe."  Then she looked up at him, fury and pain in her voice, and pummeled her little fists against his chest.  "You never told me, Papa, you never explained, you never told me about the danger, never!  Why?  You thought I was too small to understand, didn't you?  You wanted to protect me?  Is that what you were trying to do?"

Her father's face.  She could no longer look at it.  He gazed down at her with such despair, such sadness.  Her tears washed the image of his face away.  She cried into her palms, alone.  Her father did not touch her.  In those awful, lonely minutes, the girl understood.  She was no longer a happy little ten-year-old girl.  She was someone much older.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  For her.  For her family.  For her brother.  (from Sarah's Key, page 57)

Sarah's Key is a heartbreaking novel that centers on a real but little known incident that occurred in France during World War II.  The Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup on July 16, 1942, involved thousands of Jewish families being taken from their homes and housed for days in disgusting, degrading conditions in the Paris stadium before they were taken to the Auschwitz gas chambers.  More than 4,000 Jewish children ages 2 to 12 were killed.  The roundup is a stain on France's history, mainly because the French police -- not the Nazis -- pulled these families from their homes, and many of the children who perished were born in France.

Tatiana de Rosnay brings this tragedy to life in the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who on the very first page is faced with the police pounding on the door.  Her father, hoping to escape arrest, is not at home, but later joins Sarah and her mother.  Sarah, assuming that she and her parents will be home in a matter of hours, tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in their secret hiding place -- a concealed cupboard in their bedroom wall -- with nothing but a flashlight, cushions, toys, books, and a flask of water.  Sarah's parents know what is happening, the fate that likely awaits them, and their desperate and failed attempts to return to their home to rescue the boy broke my heart.  Weeks later, Sarah manages to escape the camp and is determined to make her way back to Paris and to her brother...but will it be too late?

For about half of the book, the chapters alternate between Sarah's story and that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and daughter in 2002.  She is working on a story about the roundup for the 60th commemoration.  Julia throws herself into the investigation, and her heart is broken as she learns about all the dead children and parents, how their homes were quickly reoccupied, and how few people want to remember what happened.  Meanwhile, she is struggling to save her marriage as she learns she is pregnant and her husband decides he is too old to be a father again.  As she decides what to do with her husband's ultimatum -- have an abortion or our marriage is over -- she stumbles upon a link between her family and Sarah's.

Sarah's Key was a great read, but be ready to shed a few tears.  De Rosnay does a great job building tension with regard to Sarah's story.  Will she reach her brother in time?  I can't imagine being in Sarah's or her parent's shoes, and I wouldn't want to.  Once the fate of Sarah's brother is determined, de Rosnay tells the rest of the story from Julia's point of view, and this is where the book began to drag a bit.  I was completely engrossed in Sarah's story, but Julia's story just wasn't as captivating.  I'm not saying I didn't find Julia to be an interesting character, it's just that I found the scenes about her personal life a bit disrupting to the flow of the novel, and one would assume by the title that Sarah's story is the main focus of the book.  De Rosnay resolved both plot lines by the end of the book, with the rest of the Sarah's story told through Julia's investigation.  However, after learning what happened to Sarah after the war, the book continues to resolve Julia's issues, and I thought this part of the book could have been shortened.

Overall, Sarah's Key was an engaging, emotional read, and it brings to light a little known historical event.  Sarah's story is among the saddest I've ever read, and while mostly devoid of hope, it seems authentic, which is important when dealing with subjects like the Holocaust.

I read Sarah's Key for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.

Disclosure:  I received Sarah's Key as a gift from my husband.  I can't believe it sat on my shelf for nearly a year!


Serena said...

I still haven't read this book, and I think I got it from you?! LOL I'm glad you enjoyed this one. It seems as though you had similar reactions to it as others. which number book is this?

Zia said...

I have this on my shelves to read. I've heard such good things about it and I look forward to reading it.

Teddy Rose said...

I've been wanting to read this book ever sing I read the first review of it. I received a copy of it over the summer at the book blogger get together in Portland. I hope to get to it in 2010.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

This was a book club read of ours - isnt it powerful? I enjoyed it right until the end... then the end itself felt like I was left hanging. I actually turned the page after it was over and then back tracked... I thought I had missed something. It seemed it ended suddenly.

Blodeuedd said...

Oh no, he died right, oh that would break my heart. This story sounds like a story that I must read

Marie Cloutier said...

I wasn't crazy about the Julia Jarmond side of the novel, either- I felt like it worked much better when Sarah's story was being told. It was an okay book; I can see the appeal but it wasn't quite the book for me.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I remember some bloggers doing a read-along on this one early this year, and I wanted to read it then. It would be virtually impossible to read everything you wanted with WWII books. So this makes how many books for you for this challenge? 40? You could do this challenge for two or three years I think!

Julie P. said...

This book deeply touched my heart in the way that Sophie's Choice did. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have highly recommended it to many people.

Kaye said...

I liked this book a lot but like you found Julia's marriage plot line a drag and it did disrupt the flow of the story. The book would have been stellar without that.
Happy reading in 2010!

wisteria said...

You have me engaged, now I need to read my copy. Thanks for the enticement. :)

Darlene said...

Great review Anna. This was one of my favorite books last year. Most definitely a deeply moving story.

Literary Feline said...

I hope to get to this one this coming year. I didn't get a chance to read it this year unfortunately (I came really close to reading it as my final book for the WWII Challenge). Thanks for your great review, Anna.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think everyone who read this felt the same - less Julia and more Sarah!

Jo-Jo said...

I'm glad you liked this one Anna...I also found it very engaging.

Jennifer said...

I've had this one in my TBR for a while. I've really liked reading stories set in the WWII time period, so I think I need to bump this one up in my to-read list! Great review!

Unknown said...

I would definitely agree that Sarah's story is much more compelling, but overall this is a really great book.

Kristen said...

This one sounds like such a heartbreaking book I just don't know if I can face it.

Iliana said...

Great review, Anna. I have this one on my shelf - has been sitting on there quite a while now too! I've read a couple of reviews for this one recently and it does sound like a great story.

Stephanie said...

This book hasn't really caught my eye until now, but after reading your lovely review, I will be looking for it.

Jenners said...

My mom read this book and loved it and told me I had to read it ... and now I think I will based on your review.

Lisa said...

Now where did I put this book?

Meghan said...

I remember really enjoying this book when I read it a while ago. I'm glad you did too - I do agree that Julia's side wasn't as good. I find that often happens in the dual timeline novels. I just prefer the historical side of things!

Unknown said...

What a wonderful review! It certainly convinced me to read this book even though I am not a fan of books about WWII, especially Holocaust (I think I read too many of them at once and because they are so heartbreaking I needed to take a break). I think I am ready for this one though.

Happy New Year to you and your loved ones Anna!

Suko said...

I almost missed this wonderful review! The book sounds very touching, a must-read.

Thanks for all your terrific reviews throughout 2009, and have a safe and happy New Year!

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

A beautifully written review and thoughtful too. Every happiness in the New Year to you and yours.
Warm regards,

Anna said...

~Serena: Nope, not from me. I bought you The Lace Reader that Christmas. ;)

~Zia: Hope you get to it soon!

~Teddy Rose: I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

~Sheila: Yeah, the ending left a little to be desired, but I was more engrossed in Sarah's story in the first place.

~Blodeuedd: My lips are sealed! But regardless of the brother's fate, the stories of the roundup are so, so sad.

~Marie: Overall, I liked the book, even if Julia's story didn't grab me as much as Sarah's did.

~Sandy: Oh, we just have to revisit WWII at some point. I still have dozens of related books on my shelves that I plan on reading in the coming months, challenge or no challenge.

~Julie: Sophie's Choice is one I've wanted to read for awhile.

~Kaye: I'm glad I was able to really enjoy the story anyway, but I agree that Julia's marriage mess wasn't necessary to the plot.

~Wisteria: My pleasure! I look forward to your thoughts.

~Dar: It definitely was moving. Glad you liked it, too.

~Literary Feline: It was so hard to choose books for the challenge because there are so many good ones to choose from. I hope you get to read this one soon.

~rhapsodyinbooks: I think you're right about that!

~Jo-Jo: I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it as well.

~Crazy-for-Books: Hope you get to it soon! I'll keep an eye out for your review.

~Laza: Sounds like you and I are on the same page with this book.

~Kristen: Heartbreaking, yes, but a very worthwhile read. I never would've learned about the real story of the roundup otherwise.

~Iliana: I hope you read it soon. I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

~Stephanie: Great! Hope you get a chance to read it and enjoy it as much as I did. Well, as much as someone can "enjoy" a book on such a heavy topic.

~Jenners: I hope you do, and I look forward to your thoughts.

~Lisa: You better go find it!

~Meghan: I agree, the historical aspect is always more captivating for me.

~lilly: I hope you get a chance to read it soon. Just remember the tissues!

~Suko: Thank YOU for taking the time to read them!

~Romantic query letter: Thanks!