The Basics: In Sarah’s Key, author Tatiana De Rosnay weaves a story of past and present that intertwines a national history with a personal tragedy and the lives of an unlikely Parisian family with painful memories of a veiled past. Not only is the story incredibly compelling and heartbreaking but the snapshots that De Rosnay paints of present-day and 1940's Paris are lovely morsels of truth. De Rosnay's voice is strong and refreshing, effortlessly switching from French to English and never dumbing things down for her audience. You don't need to speak French to read this book, you just need to have an appreciation for historic revelation and exquisite storytelling.
The Story: The story centers around two women. The first is Julia, an American journalist who married a Frenchman, Bertrand, and is living what seems to be a providential life in the the City of Lights. When a story she is writing for her magazine and a guarded piece of history from her husband's family's past begin to collide, Julia finds herself obsessed with and inexplicably connected to Sarah. Sarah is a small girl of Polish descent who lives in a tiny apartment in the Marais district of Paris with her mother, father and baby brother in the 1940s. Occupied France is not a safe place for jews like Sarah and her family and they eventually find themselves caught in one of the most horrific chapters in French history. A fact that has remained hidden from the history books even until now is that thousands of French jews - men, women, and children - were rounded up and held captive in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor cycling rink and sport stadium) in the center of Paris in unimaginably inhumane conditions. After several days, families were put on trains and sent to work camps in France and then transported to concentration camps across Europe. Sarah and her family find themselves in the midst of this terrifying ordeal and for the rest of her life Sarah must face a terrible choice she made on the day she was taken from her home. As Julia uncovers Sarah's story, the plot unfolds amidst heartbreak, apology, and the realization that family and the connections we make to the people around us is what defines our lives.
The FEELINGS: This book kept me up at night. I found myself thinking about it on the drive to work and whenever I began to let my mind wander. I was engrossed like never before. I think what did it for me was a combination of things. I am a lover of history and historical fiction. I have a particular interest in World War II and an interest in the holocaust (amplified since my visit to Auschwitz in 2010). I also have an unabashed love affair with the nation of France and all things Parisian. With its descriptions of the life of an American in Paris and all the things I love about present-day France and its sordid history, this book tickled my fancy like few others can. Trust me, there was LOTS of Francasizing happening. Beyond all of that, I have to admit that my obsession with this book, much like the obsession Julia experienced with Sarah in the story, arose from the fact that I have never before identified with a character, real or fictional, so closely. I saw a lot of myself in Julia - an American in love with Paris and who, while having experienced life in France, still feels like an outsider fighting to get in. De Rosnay did not need to create a speck of suspension of disbelief. The story in and of itself is entirely credible - given the historical situation - and the characters are completely identifiable, no matter who the reader might be. It is this realism that lends the books its effortlessness as it journeys through terror, love, and shame in search of the truth.
The Conclusion: Sarah’s Key made me question so many things: the history of a country that I love, the reality of a safe and secure world I experience everyday, and, ultimately, it made me question the person I thought I wanted to be. Sarah’s Key is brutally honest, unbelievably real, and heart wrenching to the very core. Undoubtedly, you will have your own reaction to it and its effect will be different for you than it was for me. But let me assure you that its effect will be profound. Brace yourself with a box of tissues and ponder all of the FEELINGS this book delivers.
The Film: On a slightly lighter note, not only did I make a complete fool out of myself by balling for a couple of hours on a transatlantic flight with no regard for social decency whilst reading the book, I also drug myself (with a mix of excitement and trepidation) to the theater a year later to see the movie. I was torn between my desire to watch the entire story play out before my eyes and my terror that the proverbial “they” would completely ruin what had been a perfect literary experience. I was not disappointed. The film was magnificent and AFTER you read the book, I not only give my blessing but I strongly encourage you see the film. Bonus? The majority of it is in French and illustrates the story beautifully and authentically.
In other news, I just picked up De Rosnay’s The House I Loved, also set in Paris and also an extremely promising piece of historical fiction. I’ll keep you posted; in the meantime, you must read/see Sarah’s Key! Who knows what you might learn about yourself?