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Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

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Misfit
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Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Post by Misfit » Sat November 15th, 2008, 2:26 pm

"These black hours will stain our history for ever...",
Sarah's Key is written with parallel chapters, one telling the story of the round up of Jews in July 1942 by the French Police. Ten year old Sarah thinks they are only being taken for a few hours and locks her terrified brother in a secret cabinet thinking he'll be safe and takes the key with her, as Sarah, her parents and many others are sent to the Vel' d'Hiv for processing to eastern "labor camps". Julia Jarmond is an American journalist assigned to write about the Vel' d'Hiv for the 60th anniversary of a dark moment in French history that many would prefer to forget. Julia finds out about Sarah and her brother in the secret cabinet and a connection to her husband's family and this information drives her to uncover the secrets to Sarah's past.

That said, I have mixed feelings about this book. The chapters telling Sarah's story of the round up, the conditions in the Vel' d'Hiv, the children being ripped from their parents by their own countrymen, Jews being packed into cattle cars for deportation to "labor camps", and most especially her terror at realizing that her brother is locked in a cabinet that only she has the key to release him were unputdownably gripping.

On the other side of the coin, Julia's story started off interestingly enough but once Sarah's voice left about halfway through the book, things quickly deteriorated into much too short two page chapters. Instead of seriously dealing with the mindset of the French and how they buried the round up into forgotten obscurity, the author takes Julia's story into a not terribly exciting tale of an unfaithful husband having a mid life crises, an unplanned pregnancy that finally culminates in a reasonably predictable and trite ending. The Vel' d'Hiv round up is a fascinating and little known bit of French history and I would have preferred to have a book devoted entirely to Sarah's story, and her experiences later in life and how she dealt with her grief over the fate of her brother and parents. 3/5 stars - this story just left me feeling half empty after a not too satisfying meal and hungry for something more.

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JMJacobsen
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Post by JMJacobsen » Wed November 19th, 2008, 1:56 am

I loved the book, but felt that dropping Sarah's story mid-way through it was a mistake. There was so much more for Sarah to tell (starting over in New York, etc) and I would have been more interested in that part of the story than Julia's spousal problems. I also thought the ending came together too neatly, almost forced.

But I agree...the first part of the novel is the best and it was worth reading for that part alone. As a parent, it wrenched my guts out.

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Post by Amanda » Wed February 11th, 2009, 10:20 am

Here is my review:

One girl's story. A French Jewish family in Paris. A big planned round-up orchestrated by the French police. The girl, and the parents are rounded-up and packed into the Vel d Hiv. The girl puts her young brother in a hidden cupboard and locks him in, promising to return....... I knew nothing about the Vel d Hiv round up prior to reading this book. What a terribly tragic time in history! Thousands of people kept captive in a velodrome, with no food, water or toilets. Many, many children. To tell more of the story would spoil the plot. But I got total drawn into this book. In the beginning we have alternating narrators, the girl, and a modern day journalist researching the Vel d Hiv, and something much closer to home. Then later as the narratives merge, we just have the journo, and her journey in discovering the truth, about the past, family, and herself. Would have made a 5 star review except the last few chapters sort of felt as though they weren't needed. Though maybe that was just me being caught up in the story, and not really appreciating the slow down leading up to the end of a book.....which of course had to happen!


I agree with the other reviews here. The first part of the story with the alternating narratives is the better part of the book. With dropping Sarah's narrative, I would have preferred Julia to uncover more to Sarah's story than she did. I would have liked to know more of her life. But I also appreciate that writing it in the way that she did enabled more of a concentration on the long lasting effect of these tragic events in later generations.

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Post by tsjmom » Sat August 29th, 2009, 5:21 pm

I was humbled by this book. I stayed up til 1 am reading it in one nite. I do agree I missed Sarah's voice in the last third of the book, but I was mesmerized, moved, and haunted. I would HIGHLY recommend this to everyone.

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Post by Divia » Sat August 29th, 2009, 5:37 pm

I was on the fence about this book. It was offered as a vine book but I passed. Since the story drops off and there are mulitple narratves I think I will stay away.
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Post by Chatterbox » Sat August 29th, 2009, 10:57 pm

The ending was far too contrived, as were Julia's marital woes. I thought the contemporary/past narratives were neat bookends, but it didn't always click. But then, I don't think that the historical narrative would have stood on its own, either, at least for me as a reader.

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Post by Margaret » Sun August 30th, 2009, 3:30 am

It's interesting to me that novels with parallel stories set in the present and the past seem more likely to end up on bestseller lists than straight historical fiction. Like most of you, I much prefer a story that takes place entirely in the past (or in which the scenes in the present are no more than a brief framing device, as in the Outlander books). My strong suspicion is that these present/past books have more appeal to readers who won't usually pick up a historical novel - perhaps they feel on solid ground with the present-day story, and so are more likely to trust the author to help them navigate the transition into the past without giving them something too difficult to read and understand?
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Post by Chatterbox » Sun August 30th, 2009, 3:39 am

I don't have a particular objection to the two-strand narratives, but I think it's exceptionally difficult to pull off. I liked The Rossetti Letter by Christi Phillip (SP?), for instance, but thought her followup was really not at successful -- I was bored. One of the two strands of narrative always seems to suffer; the author has to have a tremendous ability to inhabit two time periods, multiple voices, etc., simultaneously.

I did like Emma Darwin's Secret Alchemy immensely, but most of these books fall apart.

One I absolutely adored was Robert Goddard's very first book Past Caring, where, if I recall correctly, there are diaries or something that the protagonist discovers. A past mystery and a present mystery converge, but it's solved/resolved in the present-day narrative.

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Post by Ash » Sun August 30th, 2009, 1:46 pm

[quote=""Margaret""]It's interesting to me that novels with parallel stories set in the present and the past seem more likely to end up on bestseller lists than straight historical fiction. Like most of you, I much prefer a story that takes place entirely in the past ..My strong suspicion is that these present/past books have more appeal to readers who won't usually pick up a historical novel - perhaps they feel on solid ground with the present-day story, and so are more likely to trust the author to help them navigate the transition into the past without giving them something too difficult to read and understand?[/quote]

I agree, which is a pity because often the historical event, in the hands of a good writer, is interesting enough! Sometimes these work; many times they don't. People of the Book is an example of one that didn't. I loved the book, and I loved the character of the woman researching the book. But I did not care for her back story, and thought the ending of the book contrived and actually rather silly. These books often structured as a modern character finding letters or diaries of an ancestor. Often the modern character is so filled with her own silly problems that it does nothing but distract from the main event. I haven't read this one, but have read enough of these types to be put off by them. One that does work beautifully for me is Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Another, which I can't remember title or author, is about a woman who finds her grandmother's trunk from Lebanon. I think its 'Book of Love', with an Islamic authors name, I'll have to check my shelves. But both the grandmothers life in England occupied Middle East and the grandaughters life were both very well done and dovetailed with each other.

I just remembered another that takes place in Carolina during the Civil War, that has a superflous grad student as the finder of the diary that couldn't have been written by a 14 year old girl. The whole thing was a wreck. Just tell me the story; the history is usually much more fascinating by itself without adding the modern element.

BTW I am glad this book is being read, for the whole experience, and the way France had swept it under the rug for decades, needed to be told. I didn't realize how much this history was hidden till my trip to Hotel Invalides in Paris. There was an exhibition there about the roundups - but the entire exhibit was about the French who were rounded up. The Jews were not mentioned. In the gift shop there was a book about the exhibit, and again, not a word. Not that the one is worse than the other, but the ommission is one that appears typical of the attitudes towards Jews at the time, and perhaps continues. I'd hope not, and maybe with this book more people will be interested to write more on it.
Last edited by Ash on Sun August 30th, 2009, 1:56 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Chatterbox » Sun August 30th, 2009, 11:35 pm

Ash, an interesting point. Despite all the the stuff that has come out recently about Klaus Barbie, the Ophuls film back in the 60s, The Sorrow & the Pity (which is excellent), etc., there is a visceral discomfort with the Occupation in France to this day. In some ways, it's more acute than the outright guilt that Germans have dealt with more openly (or been forced to deal with). France has kind of refused to come to grips with the fact that for the most part, it was the Milice and gendarmerie who conducted these roundups. The Jews remain "the other".

Curiously, whenever I'm in Paris I see a greater and greater antipathy to foreign residents/citizens from overseas, especially the Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, etc. from the 'bled'. Many of them have lived all their lives there, yet are marginalized -- second and third generations included. An African-American friend of mine who lives in Germany compares France to the "Jim Crow" south of the 1960s. There is rampant discrimination -- if you have a North African sounding first name or surname (for instance, the prefix "Ben" is a giveaway), it's still incredibly hard to get even a job interview, even if you come top of your class. The French love to criticize America as uncultured, but 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants are very readily absorbed here -- without having to give up their traditions. I've worked with Muslim women wearing the hijab, and no one turns a hair. (Sorry, pun not intended.)

Ok, rant over, back to my work!

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