Sooooo I’m not even going to look at how long it’s been since I’ve written. I think it was around April 2015? Since then, I had a baby, got a job, ran two half marathons, quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom, kept a few plants alive, killed a few plants, read some books, and successfully kept a baby alive (undoubtedly my biggest accomplishment).
My plan is to (eventually) write a post with brief thoughts on what I’ve read since my last post, assuming I can remember the books or logged them on my Goodreads. Regardless, I finished a book this morning that inspired me to write a review. Not because it was amazing! (It wasn’t). But because it wasn’t my usual genre, and it was thought-provoking. The book? Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.
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.
My usual genre is YA. I lean towards the fantastical and very fictional (think Harry Potter). Perhaps because reading has always been my escape, something that gives me hope for or relief from the world around. Sometimes I like the sci-fi and fantasy of fiction because it tickles my tendency to ask what if? What if zombies were real? How did the outbreak happen? How would we survive? Would we survive? What if I could make all my problems go away with magic? I could change my hair color or style! I could do the dishes in a flash! The laundry!
But sometimes I like to dabble in other genres, like historical fiction. Like Sarah’s Key. My mother-in-law recommended and loaned me this book, and I honestly didn’t hate it! It was a quick read, mostly because it bounced between two points-of-view, Sarah and Julia. This made the book hard to put down because once something started in one POV, it stopped to jump to the other (though not in an obnoxious way). And though this wasn’t the best use of multiple POVs that I’ve read, it was effective, specifically with Sarah. To read the horrendous round-up experience from the mind of a ten-year-old girl made the story more engaging than it would have been with just Julia’s voice. It gave the story more depth, more heart. It made the story more compelling. And as the mother of a young child, oh boy was it heart-wrenching! To hear the horrors that families, mothers, and children went through, it made me angry more than anything. To imagine my child’s face as he was torn from me and I sent elsewhere… No. Just no. To imagine the outcome my son would have faced. I can’t. It’s probably for the best I have no French or German friends. (Yes, I know I cannot hold them accountable for the atrocities committed years ago, but it will take me a day or two for this growling mama bear to go back into hibernation.)
I gave the book four stars on Goodreads for two reasons – the effective use of Sarah’s voice and the compelling story arc of the round-up. Those two were enough to make this a good read (duh-dum-chhhh) for me. That being said, I found Julia lacking. Granted, I am a twenty-something with a happy, communicative marriage to an American husband. So I can’t relate to middle-aged Julia, living in a foreign country and married to a Parisian man suffering from a mid-life crisis. But despite my best efforts to put myself in Julia’s shoes, I couldn’t connect with her or her story arc. She and her husband do not communicate. Like, even when they realize they should talk, or even when he opens up to her, they just keep their lips sealed tight and push each other away. I don’t really sympathize with people who are too stubborn to just say what they mean and how they feel, even when the problems are years in the making. For the most part, it seems like Julia and her husband, Bertrand, allowed their resentment toward each other to build.
Furthermore, I understand and appreciate her compulsion to learn more about Sarah and see her story through to the end, but that arc just doesn’t salvage my feelings toward Julia. I love her relationship with her kind, intuitive daughter Zoë. I felt myself warmed at her relationship with her husband’s grand-mère, Mamé, and the relationship that grows with his père, Edouard. But alas, not enough to salvage my feelings toward Julia. I find that she puts her marital issues on hold for a story, a story that becomes personal for her and her family, a story that her husband tells her to leave alone. But a story nonetheless. You can’t fully blame Julia. Bertrand is arrogant, uninvolved, and unsympathetic to Julia’s pull towards Sarah’s story. But Julia ignores and neglects her husband quite a bit as well.
Unfortunately, my disconnect from the character of Julia took away from my interest in Sarah and the arc of her character. Because it was filtered through the eyes of Julia and her life experiences, it detracted somehow from my own pull toward Sarah.
So maybe the book is more of a three-and-a-half stars for me. It really is a compelling read. It brings to light the events of the Vel d’Hiv roundup through the eyes of a determined, brave, fictional little girl. Events that should never be forgotten or swept under the rug. And to see the horrors unearthed by a modern woman whose story connects to the little girl gives this book just enough dimension to make it worth reading.
PS: There’s also a film adaption of this novel that I would like to get my hands onto.