I’m gonna have a hard time with this review because, and I’ll be upfront here, I loved and hated Sarah’s Key in equal measure. There, I said it. Here’s why:
In high school, I was a regular at the library and every time I was there, I somehow gravitated to the section with books about the Holocaust. It was a period of history that fascinated me and I’m still intrigued by it. I think it’s because my grandma’s father came to the USA from Germany during WWII, and her mother’s family came not long before her mother was born. For me, this horrific event in history was a way to connect me to a past that was that distanced from me.
I’ve been eyeing this book at Target for a while, so when a blog I read decided to host a book club reading of this particular book, I ordered it and finally got around to reading it. Before I address the parts/elements that made me cringe as a writer and a reader and a human, let me say what I like about this book. I’m going to warn you once: there are spoilers in here. It would be very hard for me to get around them. So read on only if you’ve already read the book, you don’t plan on reading it and don’t care about spoilers, or you just don’t care about spoilers one way or the other.
It’s set in France, for the most part, and starts in the summer of 1942. French police round up Jews in Paris and ultimately they are shipped to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them are murdered by Hilter’s Nazis. Sarah’s Key weaves together the stories of a little girl during the 1940s and Julia Jarmond, American-gone-pseudo-Frog, who lives in France with her husband and their 11-year-old daughter. During the 1942 roundup, the girl’s bother hides in a secret cabinet in the wall, and his sister shows him the key and promises to come back and get him.
I was fascinated by this in part because in all the reading about Germany I did as a high school student and a young adult, I never knew about the roundups at Vel’ d’Hiv. But it’s well-documented (forgive me for linking you to Wikipedia!) which makes my heart break even more. The first half of the book alternates between a little girl, who you’d be pretty dense to not know right away is Sarah, and her family, and the story of modern-day Julia Jarmond, doing an article for her magazine on the roundup. Right away, I was drawn in because I really liked Sarah. Of course, my heart was heavy for her, and in some ways, as someone who has never had to experience the atrocities of war and concentration camps, I pitied her. But she was a strong, proud little girl, despite the fact that she should have just crumpled to the ground and died. Her father was sent away as soon as they got the the camps, she had promised her brother she’s return to him and save him, and shortly after arriving at the French camp, she is separated, permanently, from her mother. I thought her escape was beautifully done, although some might argue realistic — but from what I’ve read, not every Nazi truly supported the cause. Sarah’s journey to freedom and to her brother, and the eventual discovery of her brother’s death, is what made me love this story. I spent the entire time wanting to know more about her and the family who saved her life by claiming her as her own, knowing full well what the risks were.
But then Julia Jarmond had to ruin it. From the get-go, I was annoyed with Julia’s story — her husband was kind of a jerk, her in-laws (aside from her father-in-law) were kind of bitchy, and the things she did were so predictable. It’s not so much that I don’t like predictable. I just don’t like books that try to fool me in the process, and I feel like that’s what de Rosnay does with this part of her text.
Okay, seriously, if you hate spoilers quit reading. I’m warning you. This is your last chance to back off. Otherwise, I’m going to ruin the book’s ending for you. So you’ve been warned.
Julia especially annoyed me after Sarah’s story merged into the present day. I thought she was so poorly developed, and honestly, she wasn’t that likable, which is strange because she is a somewhat compelling character. It’s her lack of development that makes her less likable. Although I’m not a journalist, I thought it was horrible the way that she basically accosted Sarah’s son, and was upset that he didn’t want to talk to her. Has she not heard of professional ethics? Fail on de Rosnay’s part. Perhaps it was an attempt to make Julia more human, as most people are controlled very much by their emotions, but it just didn’t work.
And the very last chapter just drove me batty because, are you even kidding me? I saw the baby’s name coming from a million miles away (mostly because of the really awful ways the author referred to her — “I woke the baby from her nap,” “Zoe, grab your sister’s arm,” “after the baby was born” — over and over and over again. So cheesy!). I saw the divorce of William, and I saw them planning their future together as soon as Julia observed that something was missing from her other relationships with men.
Overall, despite my sincere dislike of Julia, I did like this book. I think it could really pave some great book club conversations, and I’m fascinated by the historical aspect I wasn’t aware of until I picked up this book. Just know that you might wanna bunch Julia and de Rosnay in the process.